State Surveillance and the Erosion of Liberal Democracy


     Modern incidents like 9/11, the Charlie Hebdo shooting, and the recent November shootings and bombings in Paris continue to make media headlines among the Western states. Governments have attempted to address the issue of terrorism with laws such as the Patriot Act in the United States, Bill C-51 in Canada, and the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act in the United Kingdom. These laws, which usually include the expansion of the police and surveillance capabilities of the state, have been met with controversy. The movement toward these laws has gained greater traction due to a climate of fear for terrorism; a recent Gallup poll suggests that as many as half of the American population is concerned about terrorist activities and that this concern has influenced activities such as airplane travel, travel to other countries, and time spent in public places (Gallup, 2015). Terrorism and anti-terrorism legislation is a significant contemporary issue in the West, as reflected by the media, governmental response, and public sentiment. This begs the question: is the expansion of state police and surveillance capabilities justifiable within the framework of liberal democratic states?

     In order to answer this question, it must first be clear what the meaning of “liberalism,” “democracy,” and “liberal democracy” is. For the purposes of this essay, the definitions of “liberalism” and “democracy” from Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy will be used. Democracy can be understood as a system of collective decision-making where each participant has an equal role in the decision-making process (Tom Christiano, 2015). Liberalism is more complex to define as it has come to encompass significantly differing bodies of thought (e.g. classical liberalism, reform liberalism, neo-liberalism) which contain prescriptions on how to organize the economy and government of a society. For this reason, the focus will be on the ethical foundation of liberalism that was pioneered by John Stuart Mill. Liberalism, in this sense, is an ideology which emphasizes individual freedom for the purposes of fostering individuality and self-development (Gaus, Courtland, Schmidtz, 2015). From these definitions, “liberal democracy” is understood as any egalitarian system of collective decision-making which emphasizes individual freedom.

     The expansion of mass-surveillance programs in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom is often justified by governments as a necessary means to secure the liberal democratic state. Contrary to this claim, mass-surveillance by the state fundamentally undermines liberal democracy by dissolving the freedoms necessary for its sustainability. For this reason, the mass-surveillance programs of the state cannot be justified within the framework of a liberal democracy.


     In the name of fighting terrorism, some states have employed second-generation biometrics and, in doing so, have violated fundamental values of liberalism. Second-generation biometrics are tools that use behavioral and physiological traits to identify individuals, usually against their will and without their knowledge. Second-generation biometrics attempt to identify the type of individual, such as someone with malicious intentions. Katrin Laas-Mikko and Margit Sutrop explore the specific implementation of the ADABTS and INDECT second-generation biometrics projects within the European Union. These projects profile individuals based on characteristics such as ethnicity, nationality, culture, in a way that leads to unequal scrutiny. This occurs without informing the profiled person or gaining their consent, thus violating their privacy and their ability to self-identify. This interferes with fundamental liberal values such as freedom of conscience and moral autonomy. Beyond this, the information collected when profiling is stored on corporate or governmental servers which, if breached, could allow third-parties to exploit citizens that have been profiled. These measures cannot be justified as they create a climate of inequality and risk while eliminating the freedom of conscience and moral autonomy necessary for individuality, and by extension, liberalism.

     State surveillance programs have even more directly violated liberalism by their mere existence. The first amendment of the United States constitution embodies many essential values of the liberal position. Post-9/11 America saw the widespread expansion of state surveillance programs that targeted citizens of the United States. S. S. Hughes examined legal cases against the government for the way their surveillance programs had violated the first amendment. Hughes noted that state surveillance has had a chilling effect on American civil liberties, whereby citizens had avoided certain methods of communication and association for fear of governmental surveillance. This violation is aggravated through the governmental employment of “state secrecy” as a legal defense, thus preventing citizens from having the violation of their constitutional rights addressed in court. This highlights how individual freedom is severely stunted by the mere existence of state surveillance and how the means of legal recourse for these violations is obstructed.

     Democracy has also been greatly harmed as mass-surveillance undermines voting from citizens and equal representation from politicians. The United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom is witnessing a political trend whereby political campaigners are switching from mass-messaging toward micro-targeting of voters. Studies have demonstrated that voters are increasingly influenced by the type of campaign pitch they receive, so political parties have began using voter-data to tailor their pitches to swing-voters. Voter-data is purchased from commercial information brokerages and political parties then use this to influence the voting population (Bennett, 2015). This undermines democracy in several fundamental ways. The increase in surveillance and the usage of micro-targeting tactics means that voters lose their equality in the democratic process as their access to information is increasingly skewed by political parties. Political success has become reliant upon the ability to purchase voter-data. This means that political parties and politicians lose equal representation as political success is increasingly driven by wealth. Mass-surveillance has created significant inequality in the ability of citizens to affect change within their political system, thus undermining democracy.

     The freedom of press, another key staple of liberalism and democracy, is violated by NSA surveillance within the United States. Access to information is important for the ability of citizens to make informed democratic choices, and having the freedom of press is vital for personal freedom. Geoffrey King reports on how NSA surveillance has increasingly interfered with the ability of journalists to keep their sources confidential, leading to a restricted press. The data that the NSA collects on journalists is also stored for significant periods of time and, if any kind of authoritarian regime came to power, would make those with dissenting opinions easy targets for governmental repression. The last significant concern that is detailed in King’s report is in the implementation of artificial intelligence in surveillance. Artificial intelligence programs could predict, via the data being collected, future challenges to governmental authority from journalists. This could allow government bodies to take action against dissenting opinions and political opposition long before this opposition gained momentum and exposure. Privacy, in these instances, acts as a counterweight to governmental abuse. As this privacy is eroded, it increasingly stunts the ability of citizens to check the power of their government while subjecting them to significantly more risk. As their access to information is further controlled by the government, their ability to make informed democratic decisions or to affect democratic change is significantly diminished. Liberalism and democracy are both eroded strongly through these practices.

     For those that cannot or wish not to affect change through courts or political campaigning, protesting and other forms of horizontal political activism has been readily utilized. State surveillance programs, however, severely restrict legal protests and violate the various liberal freedoms which it depends upon. These conditions have been explored by Starr, Fernandez, Amster, Wood, and Caro in their examination of post-Seattle era protests, contemporary social movements, and political organizations. They’ve discovered that groups and individuals that associate with protest groups or similar political activist groups are subject to greater surveillance and state scrutiny. This has reduced the ability of protest groups to gain support. The ability of dissenting political groups to organize themselves and maintain solidarity has been severely reduced as surveillance has had a chilling effect on group cohesion and mobility while state police often employ fear-tactics against these groups. State police have also notoriously broken up legal protests in violent manners, often relying upon intelligence from surveillance programs to do so. This has made citizens fearful to protest, associate with protest groups, or voice dissenting opinions. Liberal freedoms are obstructed while the freedom of political association and assembly necessary for healthy democracies is eliminated.

     In this emerging culture of state-surveillance, honest discussions about its implications are offset by collective misunderstanding and a lack of clear information. Contemporary liberal academics such as Sean Wilentz, George Packer and Michael Kinsley, have failed to grasp the significance and implications of state mass-surveillance. Henry Farrel has examined the criticisms that these thinkers have made against the whistle-blowing activities of Edward Snowden and others. In doing so, Farrel has demonstrated how an over-reliance on past liberal ideological debates has resulted in a significant misunderstanding of the effects of contemporary surveillance practices. This poses a significant threat to liberal democracy because, as surveillance programs continue to expand, thoughtful discussions about their risks and implications continue to be offset further.


     Mass-surveillance significantly violates the fundamental freedoms necessary for liberalism and democracy. The ethical freedoms that comprise liberal thought, such as freedom of conscience, moral autonomy, freedom of association, and others, are inhibited by a variety of surveillance methods, including second-generation biometrics, NSA surveillance tactics, and the surveillance and fear-mongering tactics of the state police. The equality of the voter through access to information and the equality of the politician through representation is obstructed by the shift of political success toward those with the ability to purchase voter data, thus subverting democracy. Surveillance programs have prevented the freedom of the press and the free access to information by citizens that are necessary to healthy democracies and liberalism. The ability to seek recourse for the violations of liberalism and democracy through courts or protesting is restricted by government imposition and by the fear-mongering of state police. Due to the limited access to information about state surveillance, the problem of state-surveillance is exacerbated while adequate public attention is prevented. Mass-surveillance programs undermine liberal individual freedoms and subvert democracy in the name of protecting those very institutions. Due to its inherently self-defeating nature, mass-surveillance programs cannot be justified within the framework of a liberal democratic state.

Works Cited

Bennett, C. J. (2015). Trends in Voter Surveillance in Western Societies: Privacy Intrusions and Democratic Implications. Surveillance & Society, Vol. 13 (Issue 3), p370-384.

Christiano, T. (2015). Democracy Defined. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (Spring 2015). Retrieved on November 17th, 2015, from

Farrel, H. (2014). Big Brother’s liberal friends. National Interest, (Issue 134), p25-34.

Gallup (2015). Terrorism in the United States. Retrieved on November 17th, 2015, from

Gaus, G.; Courtland, S. D.; Schmidtz, D. (2015). Liberal Ethics. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (Spring 2015). Retrieved on November 17th, 2015, from

Hughes, S. S. (2012). US Domestic Surveillance after 9/11: An Analysis of the Chilling Effect on First Amendment Rights in Cases Filed Against the Terrorist Surveillance Program. Canadian Journal of Law & Society, Vol. 27 (Issue 3), p399-425.

King, G. (2014). Clear and present danger: the NSA, surveillance and the threat to press freedom. Nieman Reports, Vol. 68 (Issue 1), p38-42.

Laas-Mikko K. & Sutrop M. (2012). How Do Violations of Privacy and Moral Autonomy Threaten the Basis of Our Moral Democracy? TRAMES: A Journal of the Humanities & Social Sciences, Vol. 16 (Issue 4), p369-381.

Starr, A.; Fernandez, L.; Amster, R.; Wood, L.; Caro, M. (2008). The Impacts of State Surveillance on Political Assembly and Association. Qualitative Sociology, Vol. 31 (Issue 3), p251-270.


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