Is everyday surveillance a religious issue?

Professor David Lyon giving his talk on why surveillance is a religious issue at St Martin's in the Bullring church in Birmingham

Last night (17 October) Open Rights Group Birmingham organiser Francis Clarke attended a talk on surveillance by Professor David Lyon of the Surveillance Studies Centre at Queen’s University in Canada. Here Francis shares his notes from the event along with his thoughts on what civil liberties campaigners can learn from Professor Lyon’s talk.

A different perspective on the surveillance debate

Organised by the St Andrews University Surveillance and Religion Network, the talk was titled “why is everyday surveillance a religious issue?” and so was looking at surveillance from a different angle than the human rights and civil liberties frameworks the Open Rights Group focuses on.

Professor Lyon’s talk was titled “why is everyday surveillance a religious issue?”. It’s fair to say this isn’t a perspective I’d given much thought to as a campaigner with the Open Rights Group, where we’re more likely to discuss surveillance legislation in terms of its impact on our human rights than what God would make of it all.

However, if civil society is stand a chance of pushing back against the kind of mass surveillance that’s being legitimised by the Investigatory Powers Bill, then we’ll need to build alliances that go beyond like-minded organisations organisation. We need people from different faith backgrounds and none to work together and speak out against unreasonable surveillance. Drawing on religious as well as secular traditions could enable us to find the common ground we will need for the campaigns ahead of us.

What would God make of surveillance?

Professor Lyon began his talk by pointing out that the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) have a complex relationship with surveillance and its effects.

On the one hand, God is understood to be watching over his followers at all times, which would indicate a certain acceptance of mass surveillance. On the other hand, Lyon explained all three religious traditions place importance on human agency (the ability of humans to make their own choices), social justice and love and trust, values which are often at odds with the everyday surveillance we experience in our society.

Professor Lyon also explained faith communities’ attitudes towards surveillance are often shaped by practical experiences of being surveilled and subject to coercion as much as religious teachings. For example, some Jews may be particularly troubled with digital surveillance systems which seek to profile an entire population and categorise groups of people, seeing in this echoes of 20th century history. For Christians, concerns about surveillance may be felt most acutely in the targeting of Christian worshipers in predominantly Muslim countries. Similarly, Muslims’ experiences of surveillance and profiling post-9/11 may inform their outlook more than Quranic prohibition on spying on others.

Areas where surveillance conflicts with religious values

Professor Lyon identified the following aspects of surveillance as posing particular concerns for people with religious beliefs:

  • Human dignity. The Abrahamic religions believe humans were created in the image and likeness of God and have an inherent worth and dignity.  It can be argued that surveillance treats people as less than a whole person, categorising and treating people differently based on certain characteristics or fragments of data, based on criteria which are kept hidden from view.
  • (Loss of) privacy. Professor Lyon links privacy to free will and agency. As human beings, Lyon explained, it is important we are able to control when we are seen by others. With the proliferation of smart devices data will constantly be being generated by our devices and analysed by external organisations (both state and corporation) even when we are in our homes and doing nothing. This represents a loss of control.
  • (Loss of) freedom. Lyon described surveillance as a form of ‘soft coercion’ which limits our thinking and actions. Surveillance, including the belief that  you could be under surveillance at any time has been found to have a ‘chilling effect’ on human behaviour, discouraging people from engaging in legal activities which may be perceived as suspicious. For an idea of what this looks like in practice, read the Motherboard article, ‘Chilling Effect’ of Mass Surveillance Is Silencing Dissent Online, Study Says.
  • Social justice. While Professor Lyon explained that surveillance is not exclusively good or bad, he pointed to examples of where surveillance can reinforce social injustice and further marginalise already vulnerable people. For example, when ‘big data’ techniques are being applied to policing, they can result in poor communities experiencing ‘over-policing’, which can reinforce cycles of exclusion. Elsewhere, credit rating systems can be affected by biases in how the data is collected and interpreted (both unconscious and conscious), and this affects people’s access to other basic services.
  • Love over fear. At a philosophical level, Professor Lyon explained surveillance often goes against religious beliefs in the importance of love and trust. The growth in surveillance has been accompanied by reported levels of trust. Fear of crime, particularly terrorism, is key to arguments over the expansion of surveillance. Surveillance alters the relationship between citizens and the state, creating distrust. From a religious perspective, Lyon sees the growth of surveillance as undermining efforts to tackle crime and other social problems by growing trust between citizens, states and businesses.

Building alliances with faith communities to challenge mass surveillance

While I found Professor Lyon’s talk very interesting, I’m not sure the Open Rights Group should start directly referencing religious belief in the campaigning we do around surveillance reform. I do, however, believe it’s important that human rights and civil liberties campaigners take on board how surveillance relates to religious thinking. Doing so will help us to reach out to people from faith communities with concerns over surveillance and build alliances for change.

Audio recording coming soon

Professor Lyon’s recorded. We will look to update this post with the full audio recording as soon as it becomes available.

4 thoughts on “Is everyday surveillance a religious issue?

  1. Like many people with religious beliefs, I think Professor Lyon confuses religion with ethics & morality. I don’t think he’d find many people who don’t believe that humans should be afforded “an inherent worth and dignity”.

    I used to think that religious belief was different to other belief systems but my current working definition of religion is ‘something you believe without, or despite, reliable evidence’. My change of mind came fairly recently when Prof. Brian Cox pointed out that there’s no such thing as a ‘scientific fact’, only theories (beliefs) that haven’t been proved wrong yet.


    1. Hi Andy, I think Lyon’s arguing that religious people should take everyday surveillance seriously. He’s not saying that it’s _only_ religious people who can or should take it seriously.


      1. That would be a sensible way to interpret it but I don’t believe it is what he said. Like many people, he seems to believe ethics must come from religion.


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