Making Digital Surveillance Unacceptable? Security, Democracy, and the Political Sociology of Disputes

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Despite extensive criticisms of mass surveillance and mobilization by civil
liberties and digital rights activists, surveillance has paradoxically been
extended and legalized in the name of security. How do some democratic
claims against surveillance appear to be normal and common-sense,
whereas others are deemed unacceptable, even outlandish? Instead of
starting from particular “logics” of either security or democracy, this paper
proposes to develop a political sociology of disputes to trace how the
relation between security and democracy is shaped by critique in practice.
Disputes entail critique and demands for justification. They allow us to account
for the constraints which govern whether an argument is deemed acceptable
or improper; common-sensical or peculiar. We mobilize disputes
in conjunction with Arjun Appadurai’s reflections on “small numbers” in
democracies in order to understand how justifications of surveillance for
security enact a “rise in generality,” whereas critiques of digital surveillance
that mobilize democratic claims enact a “descent into singularity.”
To this purpose, we analyze public mobilizations against mass surveillance
and challenges brought before the European Court of Human Rights
(ECtHR). We draw on interviews with a range of actors involved in the
disputes, the parties’ submissions, oral hearings, judgments, and public
Original languageEnglish
JournalInternational Political Sociology
Publication statusPublished - 22 Oct 2021


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