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Book Review: Surveillance after Snowden

A Book Review by Doug Specht, published by Media Culture and Society

David Lyon, Surveillance after Snowden. Cambridge and Malden, MA: Polity, 2015.

June 2013, in a hotel room in Hong Kong, was the moment everything changed, or so posits Lyon in his exploration of the surveillance landscape after the revelations of pervasive global spying by the National Security Agency (NSA) that day by Edward Snowden. Snowden had shown the world just how far reaching spying and surveillance were on a global scale, and by extension Lyon’s book is certainly an important contribution to the exploration of surveillance and its effects on our everyday life. Lyon takes the reader by the hand and guides them through the shifting sands of our new digitally networked world. Using a chronological narrative, Lyon first takes us through the revelations themselves, providing an overview of the content of the files, before examining what these mean in terms of the ‘watching world’ (p. 43). Lyon dedicates a whole chapter to the technological apparatus of surveillance. From here, Lyon discusses the less overt aspects of the surveillance paradigm, the (mis-)use of metadata, and its relationship with democracy. This concept is later reframed as he opens up the notion of ‘precarious privacy’. The book finishes with questions for the future, asking what this means for citizens, technology, and the security services.

Lyon uses the last half of the book to build upon the historical overview and to ask some more fundamental questions on metadata (p. 66), privacy (p. 91), and what the future might hold (p. 115). These last three chapters is where the book really gets into its stride and begins to dig a little deeper into the present landscape of surveillance. These chapters draw upon a great deal of anecdotal stories, which serve well to illustrate the manifest tensions, and although they are rarely unpacked in any great analytical detail, they are generally informative and illustrative. These stories also serve to make the book accessible and very readable. The work certainly draws to our attention some of the debates surrounding surveillance and privacy since 2013. Yet, Lyon himself suggests that despite the shock, and almost delight, that Snowden caused when revealing the extent of mass surveillance – and despite taking this moment from which to springboard into the rest of the book – Snowden’s words did not constitute a moment of actual change in how surveillance is being undertaken. Something we continue to see with the Investigatory Powers Bill, which recently made its way into the House of Lords in the United Kingdom (GOV.UK, 2016)*. Furthermore, there appears to have been little in the way of change within the popular or academic discourse of surveillance. This then leads us to question what purpose it serves to take Snowden as a key turning point and why a book such as this should place him at the center when, by the author’s own admission, the book is not about Snowden at all.

The focus on Snowden perhaps reveals the author’s own slip into the sensationalization of the surveillance state. Lyon admits that his title seeks to speak to the issues high-lighted by Snowden, rather than the man himself (p. 6), but the use of Snowden’s name presents a difficult juxtaposition against Lyon’s own call for examining the use of the language of surveillance and for a deeper understanding of the concepts and multiple dimensions of the terms of privacy and surveillance. This uneasy relationship between critical and populist rhetoric runs through the book and means that it is all but impossible for Lyon to enter into the more thorough deconstruction of semantics that he himself calls for in the opening pages. Throughout the book, Lyon continues to lament our participation in surveillance culture, suggesting that ‘ordinary citizens also participate [in surveillance] through their online interactions’ (p. 9). In this way, Lyon, as many scholars before, presents a dystopian view of the world, repeatedly invoking the work of Orwell. There is a sense of helplessness and stoicism to this book which somewhat detracts from its contribution as an exploration of the present surveillance landscape and rather defeats the call to action laid out in the Coda (p. 137). Furthermore, the Orwellian comparison is not only mistaken, but it also plays into the hands of those who seek to control populations through pervasive fear and further numbs us to the complexities of the discourse of securitization. Lyon is trapped by what we might call the territory of surveillance, by the patterns of interaction through which security forces and governments secure its stability (Deleuze, 2004). This entrapment is not unique to Lyon, but raises its head more clearly, because of, rather than in spite of, his attempt to understand the conditions in which surveillance exists.

The lack of space given to the deconstruction of language within the work leaves the narrative entangled in a sense of ‘affected entrapment’, to borrow from Gibson-Graham (2006), presenting the reader with no way out and a sense of resolution that leads to impotence. Yet, while Lyon does not achieve this himself, this book reminds us that as scholars we should be pressing for a new language of surveillance, one that does not draw upon the fantasies and desires of the security forces, but rather one that enables us to analyze the landscape without becoming part of it. This is by no means an easy call, and much like the attempts to discuss decolonialization within the Academy, the path forward is fraught with contradictions and pitfalls; yet it is essential in order to fully and objectively discuss the motives and outcomes of new legislation on surveillance (Louis, 2007).

This is an important book. It is timely, and it explores in depth the significant change in the surveillance landscape. Lyon has shown that Snowden’s revelations are indeed of great importance, not because June 2013 should be seen as a moment of change in the way surveillance takes place, but because, while falling foul of some of the pitfalls him-self, Lyon has used Snowden to, at least begin, illuminate the issues of semantics within surveillance studies. Going forward, we need to move beyond the surveillance rhetoric prescribed by security services, and move our scholarly understanding into a ‘post-surveillance’ mode of discussion, taking time to challenge rather than glorify the achievements of security forces, to undertake a process of deterritorialization to ensure we are not, as scholars, unwittingly becoming entrapped as the vanguards of the new digital panopticon.


 * Update: This bill has now passed into law


Deleuze G (2004) Anti-Oedipus. London: A&C Black.
Gibson-Graham JK (2006) A Postcapitalist Politics. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
GOV.UK (2016) Investigatory powers bill. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/investigatory-powers-bill (accessed 5 June 2016).
Louis RP (2007) Can you hear us now? Voices from the margin: using Indigenous methodologies in geographic research. Geographical Research 45(2): 130–139.



Photo by Miłosz Klinowski on Unsplash

Doug Specht


Dr Doug Specht is a cultural geographer and educationalist. His research explores themes related to environmental justice, human rights, and access to education, with a focus on the production and codification of knowledge though cartographic artefacts and in educational settings. In recognition of his work, he has been appointed as a Chartered Geographer and Chartered Teacher. In addition, he has been awarded Advanced Teacher Status, alongside being a Senior Fellow of AdvanceHE. Dr. Specht has authored numerous articles and books, including Mapping Crisis, the Routledge Handbook of Geospatial Technology and Society, the Media and Communications Student Study Guide and Imagining Apocalyptic Politics in the Anthropocene. He writes regularly on ethics, environmental and human rights, education, and mapping practices in such publications as WonkHE, The Conversation, Geographical, and for Times Higher Education. Dr Specht is a member of the editorial board of the European Journal of Geography, Westminster papers in Communication and Culture, and Anthropocenes – Human, Inhuman, Posthuman. He is Chair of the Environmental Network for Central America.


7 December 2016
Published By
Media Culture and Society
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