The Difference between Invisible and Visible Surveillance in a Mass Surveillance World

Posted: 9 Feb 2014 Last revised: 1 Jun 2014

Date Written: February 7, 2014


In Tijuana, Mexico, one can now look in the night sky and possibly see a small, desk-size object flying over the city. The object, a small, unmanned, low-altitude aircraft commonly referred to as a drone, is capable of twenty-minute battery-operated flights. The drone sends live video to screens at police headquarters. Several drones are being used both day and night in Tijuana for crime interdiction, particularly against burglaries. In Great Britain, multiple cameras appear throughout the country, part of a network of closed-circuit televisions also utilized for crime interdiction.

In the United States, there are some “red light” cameras at intersections and various other surveillance systems. The National Security Agency (NSA), for example, has multiple surveillance programs that obtain data from private companies, tap telephone calls, and gather massive amounts of phone metadata and telephone records. Government agencies also are developing biometric programs, such as facial recognition software like the Biometric Optical Surveillance System (BOSS), which are already employed in a sophisticated manner by private companies such as Facebook.

These collective activities lead inexorably to the realization that we are now living in a mass surveillance world. The types and numbers of systems of surveillance continue to multiply, from drones to biometrics to signals analysis. As we learn from the French root of the word surveillance, surveiller, meaning to watch over, our movements are being watched, stored, connected and dissected every day in myriad ways.

For most surveillance to succeed, unless it is designed primarily to deter observers instead of capturing information or behavior, it is almost axiomatic that an element of secrecy is needed. This is especially true when the governmental objective is national security. The problem is that the national security narrative cloaks surveillance in invisibility. In doing so, the cloaking minimizes other factors in the calculus for determining the parameters of lawful surveillance, such as the harms incurred by individuals, the Constitution and the rule of law. As a recent report by the independent Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board noted, “Despite widespread support for balancing openness and secrecy, there has been equally widespread consensus within and without the government that the system tilts too far in the direction of secrecy.”

Thus, the distinction between invisible and visible surveillance has potentially profound consequences. With invisibility, there generally is no narrative, and without such a narrative, a coherent voice – the core of our adversarial court system and democracy -- cannot be raised concerning the harms of surveillance, such as whether it might violate the Fourth Amendment or various statutes. Consequently, it is more difficult to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate powers, creating a slippery slope of one-sided justification.

This paper will explore the distinctions between visible and invisible surveillance. Given the significance of these distinctions, I will argue that some visibility of surveillance — some transparency — is needed to ensure that proper privacy safeguards exist. In short, reframing the analysis to allow a narrative about the harms of indiscriminate mass surveillance hopefully will lead to greater government accountability, increased protection of liberty and a stronger rule of law.

Suggested Citation

Friedland, Steven, The Difference between Invisible and Visible Surveillance in a Mass Surveillance World (February 7, 2014). Elon University Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2014-02, Available at SSRN:

Steven Friedland (Contact Author)

Elon University School of Law ( email )

201 N. Greene Street
Greensboro, NC 27401
United States

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