The Temporal Dimension of Surveillance

'The Temporal Dimension of Surveillance', 21(4) Surveillance & Society 393-408 (2023)

19 Pages Posted: 8 Nov 2022 Last revised: 11 Dec 2023

See all articles by Michael Birnhack

Michael Birnhack

Tel Aviv University - Buchmann Faculty of Law

Date Written: November 6, 2022


This article places the temporal dimension of surveillance under the spotlight. Surveillance studies examine multiple dimensions of surveillance: Who surveilles whom, what practices are applied, how, where, and why are they executed, and the dynamics, effects, and meanings of various forms of surveillance. Time is too often taken for granted.

A given surveillance setting, such as a biometric system, CCTV, or collecting cellular-based location data, comprises several time vectors: the timeline and pace of events where time is a physical fact, technological temporal affordances, government time, and legal time, and perhaps others. These separate time vectors often progress at different paces. Thus, the multiplicity of time vectors enables prioritizing them differently, offering different temporal narrations and, perhaps, discursive manipulations. When the government or a regulator explains a surveillance system or a court reviews it, they offer their view of the interaction of the time vectors and frame its temporality. This is the social construction of time.

This article proposes a critical temporal analysis of surveillance. Along with identifying temporal aspects of a given surveillance setting, we should search for the temporal elements in the discourse about surveillance. This inquiry may enlighten how a particular surveillance apparatus was justified or rejected.

This article illustrates the relevance of critical temporal inquiry for surveillance studies through a case study from Israel, where mass state surveillance was implemented for contact tracing during the Covid-19 pandemic. I examine three Supreme Court cases that scrutinized this apparatus, exposing how the judicial portrayal of the different time vectors affected its legitimacy.

Keywords: Surveillance, temporality, COVID, Israel, contact tracing, discourse

Suggested Citation

Birnhack, Michael D., The Temporal Dimension of Surveillance (November 6, 2022). 'The Temporal Dimension of Surveillance', 21(4) Surveillance & Society 393-408 (2023), Available at SSRN: or

Michael D. Birnhack (Contact Author)

Tel Aviv University - Buchmann Faculty of Law ( email )

Ramat Aviv
Tel Aviv, 69978
+972-3-640-6623 (Phone)

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