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Remote Control Project Report: Mass surveillance - security by ‘remote control’

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29 July 2015

Image: Creative Commons, flickr: Shawn Harquail

This briefing paper, by the Remote Control project, looks at the implications and effectiveness of mass surveillance as a counter-terrorism strategy following the Edward Snowden leaks in 2013.


  • The Edward Snowden leaks in 2013 revealed details of extensive internet and phone surveillance by US intelligence services and their partners, including the UK. The discovery has raised serious concerns about the indiscriminate collection and analysis of data from citizens by states in the name of counter terrorism, in particular regarding the right to privacy as well as concerns around the transparency, accountability and oversight of these programmes.
  • Unforeseen consequences, including the proliferation of mass surveillance technologies and a decrease in public trust in government, as well as doubts over the effectiveness of mass surveillance as a method of counter-terrorism have been found. The use of private contractors working on surveillance programmes is a further concern.
  • Mass surveillance techniques are an example of security by ‘remote control’ - the move towards countering threats at a distance without the need to deploy large military force. As technological advances have increased government intelligence gathering capabilities, mass surveillance techniques demonstrate the increasing interconnectedness between intelligence, technology and modern day warfare and the central role communications surveillance is in playing in modern conflict.
  • Research that will produce quantitative evidence of the effectiveness of mass surveillance to thwart terror plots in the UK, as well as an analysis of the cost effectiveness of mass surveillance programmes in comparison to other forms of surveillance (e.g. targeted) is needed to facilitate an informed and comprehensive debate on the subject.  The establishment of a robust regulatory framework for private security companies who are trading surveillance technologies, as well as publicly available information on the scale and regulation of private contractors working on “bulk collection” programmes in the UK is also needed, as well as the development of a long-term security strategy that doesn’t look to remote control as an end in itself but instead focuses on addressing the root causes of conflict. 

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