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Society in the digital era: citizenship and surveillance

Updated: Apr 16, 2019

On 21 March 2018 a majority of the Dutch population – composed primarily of the young and city-dwellers – voted “no” in a non-binding referendum in which the Dutch government proposed a law which has come to be known as the “Trawl Net” (Sleepwet) – a blanket surveillance law which in the view of some makes the Netherlands the sixth member of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing agreement between the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Leaving aside the fact that this referendum followed relatively soon after another “no” vote in the 2016 referendum on the EU-Ukrainian Association Agreement, resulting in the Dutch parliament’s decision to abolish the referendum instrument altogether, the various forms of surveillance raise critical questions for citizens.

Indeed, it may be wondered whether in a digital era where ‘subjects have been atomised and fragmented’, they will still ‘be understood simply as the citizens of well-defined and manageable nation states’ (see the introduction to a special issue of Digital Journalism dedicated to ‘journalism, citizenship and surveillance’). And how should we, considering that technologies are not neutral and are frequently ideologically biased, assess the risk that ‘different groups and individuals – distinguished by factors including race, ethnicity, income and religion – may be differentially targeted and affected by big data surveillance in what might be considered a system of “social sorting”’? The EU Agency for Fundamental Rights has in this connection reported critically on recent EU plans to overhaul national identity documents by adding fingerprints and facial imagery, claiming that it could put EU citizens’ privacy and personal data at risk.

Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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