Roger Clarke's Web-Site

© Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd,  1995-2024
Photo of Roger Clarke

Roger Clarke's 'Societal Resilience'

The Resilience of Society in the Face of Surveillance

Notes of 5 February 2013 for the Advisory Board of the
Increasing Resilience in Surveillance Societies (IRISS) project

Roger Clarke **

© Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, 2013

Available under an AEShareNet Free
for Education licence or a Creative Commons 'Some
Rights Reserved' licence.

This document is at


1. Introduction

At the meeting in Brussels on 24 January 2013, members of the Advisory Board of the Increasing Resilience in Surveillance Societies (IRISS) project were asked for their thoughts on several aspects, particularly in relation to Work Package 6. The comments below repeat some things that I said in the meeting, but also reflect points made by others, and are somewhat expanded from the brief comments made in the meeting.

2. The Problem with Surveillance

Surveillance is the systematic investigation or monitoring of the actions or communications of one or more persons. Surveillance has more or less predictable benefits, more or less predictable disbenefits (including financial costs), and embodies contingent risks. The first-order impacts and second-order implications of surveillance include both intended and unintended consequences.

A range of applications of surveillance technologies is well-established as delivering net benefits to society, with negative impacts avoided or mitigated. Many other applications, however, particularly during the hectic decade and more since 2001, deliver far too little benefit and/or have excessive negative impacts that are not satisfactorily mitigated.

Because of the scope for significant harm to important personal, social, economic and/or political values, it is essential that proposals for surveillance schemes be subject to evaluation.

Further, there are a number of essential characteristics of the evaluation process:

3. Resilience of What, and against What?

My understanding is that the focus of the research program is on the application of surveillance technologies that threaten, or are perceived to threaten, the fabric of societies, and in particular human rights, civil freedoms, and processes fundamental to democracy. Of especial concern are those applications that have been inadequately justified, inadequately designed, inadequately controlled and/or inadequately reviewed.

Each surveillance scheme is an intervention into social processes, and perhaps also economic and political processes, and the capacity of societies to cope with that intervention needs to be assessed.

The accumulation of many schemes creates a much more substantial threat than individual schemes.

Further, information arising from different surveillance schemes may be combined. In this case, the indirect effects on social, economic and political processes are not merely additive, but multiplicative.

Assessment is therefore needed of the ability of societies to cope with the imposition of individual surveillance schemes, of flotillas of schemes, and of intersecting sets of schemes.

4. The Concept of Resilience

Resilience might be interpreted narrowly or broadly.

At its broadest, I see Resilience as being a characteristic of society whereby important values and processes withstand interventions that have the tendency to negatively impact them, e.g. by undermining or suppressing them. In this context, the relevant values are human rights and civil freedoms, and the relevant processes are those fundamental to democracy.

Alternatively, if 'resilience' is interpreted in the more conventional, narrow sense - see (4) below - it is important that it be seen within its broader context.

The following aspects of a society's response are usefully distinguished, along a timeline beginning prior to the development of each scheme, and continuing during and subsequent to its implementation. (When I spoke at the meeting, I'd missed 'prior to', hence in (1) below, I'm making a free interpretation of remarks made by Charles Raab).

(1) Precaution or Prevention

When one or more organisations is considering an application of surveillance technologies, Precaution or Prevention refers to actions intended to ensure that an appropriate process is adopted whereby the scheme is conceived, evaluated and developed and that an appropriate design is achieved; and that, if those two requirements are not satisfied, then the proposal does not proceed.

Such actions may possibly be taken by the sponsors of the scheme, but - particularly in contexts in which institutional or market power is available to those sponsors - it is more probable that the actions are taken by other parties.

(2) Resistance

When one or more organisations seek to use their institutional or market power to impose a surveillance scheme, Resistance comprises actions taken by other parties that are intended to activate or generate countervailing power, in order to prevent the scheme proceeding, or force changes in the process whereby the scheme is developed and/or changes in the design of the scheme.

Where a surveillance scheme has been imposed, Resistance comprises actions (and perhaps forms of inaction) that are intended to have a detrimental effect on its effectiveness.

Resistance may be:

(3) Robustness

Robustness is the quality whereby important values and processes are sustained, despite the imposition of surveillance. The focus is particularly, but not exclusively, on schemes that are unjustified, excessive and/or embody inadequate measures to mitigate unnecessary negative impacts.

Robustness exists if a strong majority of institutions and individuals continue to exhibit relevant social, economic and political behaviours despite the imposition of the surveillance. This may be because it is ignored, or even an object of derision; or they have become inured to it and take the risk; or because they intentionally transgress norms that organisations seek to suppress, in effect daring the organisation to take action.

(4) Resilience (in the narrow)

Resilience is the quality whereby freedoms and the integrity of democratic processes are recovered, following the removal or significant adaptation of surveillance, particularly where it was unjustified or excessive and/or embodied inadequate measures to mitigate unnecessary negative impacts.

Resilience is evidenced by a majority of institutions and individuals resuming social, economic and political behaviours that had been less evident as a result of the effects of the surveillance.

5. Examples and Test-Cases

These ideas can be applied and tested across a range of surveillance contexts, including those listed below. Those that are the subject of multi-country case studies are in bold-face type:

A great deal of diversity is likely to be exhibited across the various contexts.

The risk exists that key aspects of Precaution/Prevention, Resistance, Robustness and Resilience may not come to attention within the case studies.

For example, some important features may be common to many categories, but not universal, and hence may not be evident in the 3 of, say, 20 categories that are studied.

In addition, applications of surveillance, in various countries, will have reached various stages of maturity, with the result that particular impacts and implications may or may not have occurred yet, and evidence of them may or may not be available, and if so may be fresh or stale.

It therefore appears advisable to complement the (highly valuable) deep multi-country case studies with vignettes of other categories, even if each vignette is considered in only one or a few countries.

Author Affiliations

Roger Clarke is Principal of Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra. He is also a Visiting Professor in the Cyberspace Law & Policy Centre at the University of N.S.W., and a Visiting Professor in the Research School of Computer Science at the Australian National University.

xamaxsmall.gif missing
The content and infrastructure for these community service pages are provided by Roger Clarke through his consultancy company, Xamax.

From the site's beginnings in August 1994 until February 2009, the infrastructure was provided by the Australian National University. During that time, the site accumulated close to 30 million hits. It passed 65 million in early 2021.

Sponsored by the Gallery, Bunhybee Grasslands, the extended Clarke Family, Knights of the Spatchcock and their drummer
Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd
ACN: 002 360 456
78 Sidaway St, Chapman ACT 2611 AUSTRALIA
Tel: +61 2 6288 6916

Created: 24 January 2013 - Last Amended: 5 February 2013 by Roger Clarke - Site Last Verified: 15 February 2009
This document is at
Mail to Webmaster   -    © Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, 1995-2022   -    Privacy Policy