Doing anti-surveillance activism differently

Screenshot: Right2Know marches to the South African Parliament, October 2011.YouTube.South Africa’s new president, Cyril
Ramaphosa, has a great deal of work to do to fix the country’s state spy
agencies. The most broken agencies are the Crime Intelligence Division of the
South African Police Service (Saps) and the State Security Agency (SSA). At
best, these agencies failed to prevent state capture by corrupt elements linked to former president Jacob
Zuma, and at worst, they enabled state

But what if Ramaphosa doesn’t take
drastic actions to fix these agencies? Then we’ll have to rely on activists to
push for the necessary changes.

But what types of activism work and
what doesn’t in relation to state surveillance? In answering this question,
it’s useful to draw some lessons from anti-surveillance activism in countries
as diverse as the UK, South Africa and Mauritius. 

Edward Snowden’s leaks about state
spy agency excesses reminded us that no country should be allowed to enjoy
over-broad surveillance powers. Governments the world over have abused such
powers to move far beyond their stated purposes of fighting crime and
terrorism, to spy on trade unionists, activists and other politically
inconvenient people. Yet, state spy agencies are so shadowy and powerful that they may appear

Yet, state spy agencies are so
shadowy and powerful that they may appear unassailable. 

We should be particularly concerned
if the major global surveillance powers give themselves more powers than they
should, because their spying activities are likely to extend far beyond their

UK’s Investigatory Powers Bill – a democratic failure

In view of these dangers, it should
concern everyone that in the dying days of 2016, the UK Parliament passed the
Investigatory Powers Bill into law. This it did despite significant opposition
from digital rights and privacy groups. Why were campaigns against the Bill
largely unsuccessful? 

According to research conducted
by academics at Cardiff University, campaigns against the Bill relied too
heavily on specialist lobbying and advocacy, and not enough on broader public
awareness-raising and mobilisation. 

Anti-surveillance advocates failed to
engage social justice movements in the campaign, and consequently they felt
alienated from it. In spite of the fact that many activists were at risk of
surveillance, organised responses to the Bill were left to expert

With the exception of The
Guardian, the mainstream
press was largely pro-surveillance, as they were dominated by the voices of
politicians. The public became resigned to security discourses as terrorist
threats were real and present. As a result, there was no significant mass
Yet, a mere six years earlier, UK privacy campaigners had stopped the
government’s plans to introduce a ‘smart’ ID card system. The media (including
the right wing press) questioned official claims about the contributions of ID
cards to fighting terrorism. The public were cynical about the system and
feared misuse of their personal information. 

Anti-surveillance campaigns that are
driven by specialists, and that eschew, or do not pay sufficient attention to,
building effective mass opposition, will be doomed to fail. 

Public awareness

Anti-surveillance activists need to
take movement-building seriously, and a precondition of such work is public
awareness-raising. After all, governments with vested interests in the
continued viability of the surveillance industry (such as the UK’s) are
unlikely to be persuaded to adopt different positions purely on the basis of
good arguments. 

There needs to be social power behind
these arguments, too, and social power implies collective action. 

The forces of reaction are growing
stronger by the day in the very countries that lie at the heart of the
surveillance industry. If government over-securitisation is going to be
challenged effectively, then anti-surveillance and pro-privacy campaigners
clearly need to ‘do’ their work differently. The forces of reaction are growing
stronger by the day in the very countries that lie at the heart of the
surveillance industry.

This needs to start with mapping
those social forces and their organisations that are making progressive
socio-economic and democratic claims, and placing them at the centre of
anti-surveillance work.

But what collective actions are
needed to reign in unaccountable surveillance, and which are the social forces
that are most likely to be most effective? 

In conditions of neoliberal precarity
where the industrial working class has declined in power, it is less easy but
not impossible to identify the most likely motors of potentially emancipatory
social change, including around surveillance. 

Neoliberalism has sharpened
inequality, leading to the number of marginalised populations increasing: these
include the unemployed, those in insecure work and others in the ‘precariat’, youths
(especially urban youths), black people, Muslims, lesbian, gay and transgender

These are the very ‘problem
populations’ that are the likely targets of surveillance, which can be used to
make them more visible to the state. As a result, they clearly have an interest
in resisting unaccountable surveillance. The anti-austerity movements that
developed in response to the 2008 global recession, have an immediate interest
in anti-surveillance work, too. 

Existing inequality struggles 

But in order to make
anti-surveillance work relevant to these movements, then it is necessary to
find ways of ‘mainstreaming’ this work in the everyday campaigns that bring
ordinary people into organised social and political work. 

Of necessity, working class communities
are often highly organised. So, with some creative campaigning, it should not
be difficult to relate surveillance and its dangers to mobilisations in defence
of public services, for jobs and free education for young people and against
climate change. 

The important part of mass-based
anti-surveillance campaigning is to relate the work to existing struggles on
the ground. These campaigns need to concentrate on the roles of surveillance in
the creation and reproduction of inequality, as it is this conflict that is
driving the massive expansion of the global security apparatuses, industries
and discourses. 

Privacy as an enabler of collective rights

If resistance to this expansion is
going to be effective, then it needs to provide a political voice to the otherwise
voiceless, which means articulating an understanding of privacy that makes most
sense to these social groups. 

This means that the campaigns will
need to focus less on privacy as an individual right, and more on its content
an enabler of collective rights. So, if privacy is denied these actors, then
this will prevent collective discussion and organisation. The problem with
understanding privacy as ‘the right to be left alone’, is that when it is
pitched against other collective rights, like national security, then
inevitably privacy will have to give way. 

Recent campaigns waged in two
Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries provide some
interesting lessons about challenging excessive state security power. 

Single-issue campaigns such as the
one mounted against the Investigatory Powers Bill allow campaigners to focus
consistently on a technically complex issue. But this strength can also be a
weakness, in that wily governments are more than able to marginalise these
campaigns if they do not enjoy significant social power. 

One option of drawing on the
strengths of single-issue campaigns, while limiting their weaknesses, is to
adopt a ‘movement-of-movements’ approach, where coalitions are formed between
mass movements and Non-governmental Organisations (NGOs) on specific

For these campaign coalitions to be
successful, though, they would need to accept the realities of working-class
leadership, and consciously steer away from NGO dominance. Rather, NGOs should
play a supporting role, providing technical expertise to the campaign without
dominating it. NGOs
should play a supporting role, providing technical expertise to the campaign
without dominating it.

Campaigns involving coalitions of
movements and NGOs working on issues of mutual interest are fraught with
difficulties, especially if they are cross-class in nature; but if handled with
maturity, they can achieve significant results.  

South Africa – a useful history

It hasn’t been difficult to build a
popular basis for anti-surveillance work in South Africa. The country faces no
major national security threats. As a result, governments cannot use terrorism
as a beating stick to ensure public acquiescence to overbroad security and
surveillance powers. 

Many older activists experienced
surveillance abuses under apartheid, and know how to mount effective campaigns.
Surveillance abuses, and broader abuses of the concept of national security to
justify massive repression are still part of their lived experiences. 

Screenshot: Right2Know marches to the South African Parliament, October 2011.YouTube.These factors made the onset of
‘surveillance realism’ less likely in the country, and created the basis for
intergenerational learning about state surveillance and its dangers. 

South African activists put these
learnings to use in a campaign against a Protection of State Information Bill,
which the State Security Ministry wished to use to throw a shroud of secrecy
over the country’s security apparatus. Parliament passed an amended version of
the Bill in 2013, after a huge public campaign against it. 

Tellingly, the Bill languished
unsigned on the desk of scandal-ridden former president Zuma. Not even he was
willing to risk the public backlash of signing it into law, which means that
Ramaphosa sits with the headache. 

Ramaphosa’s headache

Now, the South African government
goes out of its way to consult on potentially controversial Bills. While
discussing one such Bill with activists, one senior politician even said
‘please don’t give us another Secrecy Bill campaign’. 

The tiny island nation of Mauritius,
off the coast of south east Africa, also offers some interesting lessons.
Mauritius has a highly organised working class, largely owing to militant trade
unionism on the sugar plantations. 

In 2013, the Mauritian
government introduced a ‘smart’ ID card system,
similar to the one the UK government envisaged before it abandoned its plans.
It argued that the card would help the government stamp out identity fraud and

While on the surface of things, this
initiative sounded laudable, Mauritians rose up and opposed the
ID card through several campaigns, claiming that it threatened privacy and even
democracy itself. The government’s plans were particularly draconian, though,
as they required residents to carry their identity cards at all times, on pain
of a fine or even imprisonment if they didn’t. This lived experiences of population
registration being abused for social control purpose has been passed down
through the generations. 

What gave the Mauritian campaigns
such traction was the country’s history of colonialism, slavery and indentured
labour. Indentured labourers were required to carry identity cards at all
times, which created widespread resentment against mandatory identification
systems. This lived experiences of population registration being abused for social
control purpose has been passed down through the generations. 

‘It’s part of you’

The campaigns formulated several
demands, including that the government should destroy the biometric database
and stop the ID card from being mandatory. A popular campaign slogan, ‘It’s
part of you’, conscientised citizens about their right to exercise control over
their biometrics, as this data was tied intimately to their personhood. 

Campaigners relied on national radio,
posters and leaflets to spread the message. They also used village councils to
conduct public education on the dangers of the system, although many of these
councils ended up complying with the government. 

In the campaign, activists made links
between workers’ rights and the state’s surveillance efforts, including through
the ID card system. In the process, they turned what could otherwise have been
an issue dominated by the technical part of society into a mass issue that
focused on the repressive framework that underpinned the system. In other words,
they politicised the issue. 

Activists also engaged in direct
action and passive resistance, organising ‘go-slows’ at the ID conversion
centres and blocking queues by refusing to enrol their fingerprints. These
efforts fostered a popular consciousness about the dangers of biometric

Anti-surveillance actions spread
beyond the ID card as people developed confidence in their abilities to
struggle. Workers began to refuse to provide fingerprints for registration
purposes at their workplaces, and started criticising cameras on buses as
violations of their privacy. 

In spite of the government’s gains in
coercing many citizens to enrol, the campaigns could not be ignored, especially
by those in the Parliamentary opposition. Senior members of the opposition were
brought over to the side of the campaigners, and supported their

Campaigners used the courts, too; but
significantly their recourse to the law was but one of several tactics used.
This was because activists recognised that they were unlikely to win their
demands in the courts if they had not won them on the streets first, as court
actions on their own were unlikely to change the balance of social

Prominent Mauritians brought court
cases against the system on constitutional grounds (such as the right to
privacy), including the ex-Vice Prime Minister and ex-Minister of

Eventually, the government destroyed
the centralised biometric database, and converted the biometric system from a
one-to-many system (requiring the verification of a person within an entire
population) to a one-to-one
system, where a person’s
identity was confirmed through a comparison of their biometric data with
previously enrolled data. 

However, the government continued
with the mandatory enrolment of citizens and the requirement to present proof
of identity to the police on demand, which meant that in spite of this limited
victory, the campaign continued. 

What do we learn from these campaigns?
A political understanding of the problem of surveillance, that moves beyond a
rights-based approach, and recognises the root of the problem ­– which according to Henry
Giroux is the growth in the exercise of arbitrary state power as neoliberalism
intensifies – is more likely to be both effective and sustainable. 

Coda for NGO’s

What is key, though, is an approach
to anti-surveillance work that builds the capacity of mass movements to take on
campaigns themselves, rather than outsourcing the struggle to specialist

In fact, NGO employees need to make
conscious efforts to work their way out of their jobs. Once these campaign
strategies are incorporated into anti-surveillance work, then activists may
start to enjoy some truly significant victories over these most secretive and
intractable areas of state and commercial power.   

An earlier version of this piece appeared in the Daily Maverick on March 13, 2018.

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