After Snowden: Surveillance and Society: A one-day Symposium

Monday, September 29, 2014, 09:30-17:30

Quiller-Couch room, St John's College. (In the old Divinity School building, opposite the main gate of St John's.)


  • Coffee from 09:30
  • Discussions: 10:00-17:30 (with breaks for coffee, lunch and afternoon tea)
  • Dinner: 19:00-21:00 (for those who are able to come)


  • Take stock of the implications of the Snowden revelations about the nature and extent of Internet surveillance
  • Share different disciplinary perspectives on these implications
  • Outline an agenda for a new research initiative on the Digital Society that would facilitate collaborative interdisciplinary research in Cambridge on these and related issues
  • Plan a series of events for the next academic year to explore this vast subject.

The idea is to have a lightly-structured group conversation about what we might do as academics to enhance public understanding and democratic discourse in the light of what is now known about state and industrial power as it affects the Internet. Topics covered will include:

  • The prospects for re-engineering the network to make it less vulnerable to bulk surveillance
  • Why levels of public concern about the Snowden revelations vary between countries and cultures
  • The effectiveness (or otherwise) of current provisions for democratic oversight of Internet surveillance.
  • Security, data-protection and privacy
  • Whether fears about the chilling effect of comprehensive surveillance are justified
  • The quality of law-making in these areas

The second purpose of the workshop is to explore concretely the idea of developing a new framework for research in Cambridge on the Digital Society that would involve active collaboration between academics in computer science, the social sciences, law and history to explore fundamental questions concerning the impact of the digital revolution on social and political life.


09:30 Coffee

10:00 Introduction (John Thompson & John Naughton)

10:15 Manuel Castells: Surveillance, power and counter-power in the Digital Society

11:00 Coffee

11:15 Jon Crowcroft: The Engineering response

11:45 David Runciman: Public opinion and surveillance

12:15 Wendy Hall: [Title TBC]

13:15 Lunch

14:00 Julia Powles: Legal aspects -- data protection, privacy

14:30 David Howarth: Legislative oversight

15:00 Anil Madhavapeddy: Cryptography and other White Hopes

15:30 John Naughton: Commercial surveillance

16:00 John Thompson, Manuel Castells, John Naughton, Wendy Hall: Towards a research agenda

17:30 Close

(Dinner in the evening for those who are interested.)


Manuel Castells FBA, Wallis Annenberg Chair of Communication Technology and Society, University of Southern California; Professor Emeritus of Sociology, University of California, Berkeley; Director of Research in the Department of Sociology in Cambridge.

Wendy Hall DBE, FRS, Professor of Computer Science at the University of Southampton, UK, and Director of the Web Science Institute.

John Thompson, Professor of Sociology, Cambridge

Jon Crowcroft FRS, Computer Laboratory, Cambridge

Anil Madhavapeddy, Computer Laboratory, Cambridge

Karine Nahon, Information School, University of Washington

Pietro Lio, Computer Laboratory, Cambridge

David Runciman, Professor of Politics, POLIS, Cambridge

Joel Isaac, Faculty of History, Cambridge

David Howarth, Reader in Private Law, POLIS, Cambridge

Sharath Srinivasan, POLIS, Cambridge

Julia Powles, Faculty of Law, Cambridge

Richard Danbury, Faculty of Law, Cambridge

Cecilia Mascolo, Computer Laboratory, Cambridge

David Erdos, Faculty of Law, Cambridge

John Naughton, CRASSH, Cambridge


Ever since the advent of the World Wide Web turned the Internet from a communications network for a technical elite into a medium for mass communication and commerce, the central issue was whether it represented an existential threat to established power structures. In the early days the network was surrounded by an aura of techno-utopianism, famously articulated by John Perry Barlow in his 1996 declaration of the independence of cyberspace. With hindsight we now recognise the extent to which this was hubristic, but to early Netizens it did not seem unduly so. The established order – political and corporate – did indeed appear to be discombobulated by the Internet, and its early attempts to get to grips with it (for example in the 1996 Communications decency act, or AOL's attempt to build a "walled garden" in which to corral its users) often seemed inept and futile.

But perhaps the most persuasive reason for believing that control of the network would be beyond the reach of governments and corporations lay in the way its architecture facilitated "permissionless innovation". The speed with which disruptive innovations could be launched and scaled up suggested a future in which regulatory agencies and other would-be controllers were doomed to play a losing game of catch-up.

And there is no doubt that, in this respect, the Internet delivered. At any rate, it enabled an unprecedented explosion of creativity which triggered a torrent of new products and services. Looking at these, one could have been justified in believing that the network was indeed something unprecedented -- and certainly beyond the reach of 'the system'. But this was to overlook the fact that the network was also facilitating the emergence and growth of companies which morphed rapidly into powerful global corporations. So at least one part of 'the system' had understood the existential challenge and had tooled up to meet it.

What was less clear was how the other locus of established power – the state – was doing in coming to terms with the network. In that context, the most important service performed by Edward Snowden since June 2013 has been to remove all doubt on that score. His revelations demonstrate the extent to which the state (or at any rate, certain states) has, in fact, got to grips with the Internet. Now, fifteen months into his ongoing stream of revelations, we know a good deal more about the capabilities of agencies like the NSA and GCHQ. A crude summary of where they're at might be inferred from the name assigned by GCHQ to one of its programmes: "Mastering the Internet". No irony was intended: the programme in question involved tapping into the trans-oceanic cables carrying most of the world's internet traffic and storing three day's worth of that traffic for more leisurely analysis.

So now we know where we stand. On the one hand, the fact that the network enables comprehensive surveillance of all online activity has been adroitly harnessed by state agencies whose surveillance is ostensibly legitimated by post-2000 legislation. And on the other hand, most people's activities in cyberspace are mediated by corporations which offer 'free' services in return for the right to mine and otherwise exploit user data for advertising and related purposes. In other words, the network is now comprehensively surveilled by both state agencies and corporations. And to complete the circle, the move to mobile communications -- and particularly the rapid adoption of smartphones -- means that eventually most people will access the Internet via mobile phones provided by tightly-regulated Telcos.

The question we would like to explore is: what does this 'new reality' mean for society?