What Is a Surveillance State?

To keep things simple and understandable, it is best to define a “surveillance state” as a country whose government invests vast amounts of resources in deploying surveillance technology to monitor not only its visitors but also its own citizens. Of course, depending on where you get your news, you may hear a different definition of the phrase surveillance state. In the end, though, all mean the same thing. If a government is spying on you and your fellow citizens on a massive scale, you are living in a surveillance state.

The interesting bit about the surveillance state is that most people don’t consider it a problem as long as it presents tangible benefits. Indeed, the mere act of a state paying attention to a citizen (by surveilling them and their activities) is enough to let them know that the state wants to do something for them. Then, others believe that state surveillance might catch them doing something incriminating.

It would be much harder to understand the idea of a surveillance state without a concrete example. And according to news reports, the best incarnation of a surveillance state in the modern world is the one in China—specifically in Xinjiang.

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Is China a Surveillance State?

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Xinjiang is a province in China that is inhabited by Uighurs, a Turkic ethnic group who predominantly identifies as Muslim. The province is largely undeveloped and has fallen behind the rest of China in terms of infrastructure and modernity. Over the last several years, the Chinese Communist Party has reportedly detained over a million Uighurs in an effort to force strict adherence to the nation’s ideology and culture. China’s treatment of Uighurs has been referred to as cultural genocide, prompting sanctions and universal condemnation from human rights organizations.

One of the primary ways the Chinese government is able to control the population in Xinjiang is with a mass surveillance system. China’s authorities issue ID cards to Uighurs living in Xinjiang that are directly linked to a database containing the details of each one of them.


Once in Xinjiang, a visitor can expect to see checkpoints everywhere and constant video surveillance of the local population through security cameras and other devices controlled by the state’s police authorities.

These two methods are fairly common in some of the other surveillance states as well. But in Xinjiang, the Chinese government goes beyond what is considered standard for a surveillance state. With the help of huge state machinery, Chinese authorities are able to carry out house-to-house inspections to inquire about things such as what books people in the house are reading and the number of people living in the house at the moment.

In Hotan, a town in the province, the Chinese government has set up what it calls convenience police stations. There is one of these for every 500 meters moving by square territory.

In addition to that, families are forced to adopt government agents who keep an eye on them. Such invasive surveillance powers enable the Chinese government to build a ranking of sorts to measure people by their trustworthiness. The ones who are unreliable (as determined by the surveillance state) or don’t have a high enough score on the trustworthiness ranking scale must go to a “reeducation camp.”

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While some would put the existence of such a surveillance state down to the fact that there are no elections in China and hence no democracy, democratic countries are not immune from becoming surveillance states either. It is true that every government in every country is partially democratic. Without explicit or implicit approval or consent of the population, no government can keep an economy moving and the country stable.

But the overlap between democracies and a surveillance state is a curious one, and part of the reason why that is the case is changing times. Different eras require different laws and standard practices to deal with new situations and threats. As such, something that was once considered tyrannical could be considered normal today.

Not long ago, the idea that people living in countries such as the United States of America, along with the European Union, would need to go through checkpoints frequently within cities or would have to deal with privacy-invading inspections from time to time, or even come across border agents who would have legal clearance to check one’s electronic devices, including smartphones, without needing a warrant, would have been preposterous.

But yet, here we are: Law enforcement agencies search citizen devices thousands of times per year, and the western media has thoroughly documented how the U.S. National Security Agency has spied on and collected data on hundreds of millions of people living in the United States and other countries, per the NSA revelations of Edward Snowden in 2013.

One Wall Street Journal report said that in terms of the number of DNA records, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation was ahead of the government in China.

However, that could be limited by the fact that the Chinese authorities started to keep DNA records much later. China has caught up with the United States, though. The pace with which the state collects data on its people is becoming faster and faster. Per capita statistics put China and the United States on the same level when it comes to keeping DNA records.

Mass surveillance technologies aren’t just there to record activities or monitor people. In provinces like Xinjiang, the government uses these technologies to control people—more specifically, about half the above-mentioned Uighur Muslims. The more the government makes use of surveillance technologies, the more it controls the lives of people living in the province.

An image featuring a drawing of multiple people that are outside while being monitored by cameras representing a surveillance state concept

The Economist wrote that western countries should study the situation in China more carefully lest they follow the same path as well. The NSA may as well know more about the people of the United States than the Stasi ever did about people living in Germany. Moreover, the problem is further compounded by the fact that now the police force in many western countries has access to sensitive and private data on its citizens.

Despite some evidence to the contrary, most people living in the west do not want to change their ideas surrounding the extent of surveillance currently happening in their countries. A vast majority still believes that people living in places like China have it way worse than people living in a democratic country with broad human rights, civil liberties and privacy law protections.

Of course, a surveillance state having huge troves of data on its citizens is not even the biggest issue here. The much larger issue lies in what the state might do with that data. As indicated earlier, the primary reason why a surveillance state can be very dangerous for an open and free society is that it can cause the state to crave more control.

And more control requires more surveillance, which fuels the desire to control more—tossing civil liberties aside.

And since governments around the world are putting a significant amount of resources into developing technologies for mass surveillance, the cost of implementing those technologies is also going down. This, in turn, makes data collection inexpensive, yielding economic means of more control. This formula is usually too tempting for any government not to become a surveillance state.

There is no indication that the cost to control populations will go down in the future. Even now, states can impose strict regulations and laws without much political cost, and resource-wise, it is becoming easier and easier to implement surveillance products. Again, all of this means that states will likely know more about us in the future than they do now, and that will then force them to control populations more broadly than they do now.

Data collection is a serious problem when the entity doing the collection is the state or when one of its intelligence services possesses Big Brother levels of surveillance powers. States have the legal authority to be coercive in anything they wish. Intelligence services can force private companies to release information stored in their databases. Accordingly, any data that companies like Facebook and Google collect could potentially end up in the hands of the state—with or without a court order or warrant.

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States can and do justify their surveillance programs, though. And most of their justifications take help from concepts such as national security and stability. Almost all states indeed require surveillance to keep order in the country, preventing harmful elements from creeping up into the society.

After all, the technology that helps states to surveil their people ever deeper is simultaneously helping an ever-growing section of the population that takes part in religious wars and other anti-state activities. Such elements can now reach an unprecedented range of audiences with the press of a couple of clicks.

Moreover, such elements can travel around the world in relatively inexpensive ways and can use tools such as social media features and encryption to keep their activities public and private according to their needs at any given time.

This also means more justification for surveillance powers to further invest in the development of surveillance capabilities while keeping a lid on public dissent. There are certainly trade-offs to be had between what can be considered acceptable and necessary surveillance. Will current surveillance trends—especially in the western world—lead to totalitarianism where the state would have absolute control over the government agencies and private companies, in addition to public life?

Well, the short answer is no. The idea of such states essentially died off in the 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The only other state that comes close to being labeled as a totalitarian is North Korea. As mentioned throughout this article, China (with the Chinese Communist Party) is not far behind since there is still a state monopoly in the region, especially in the political scene.

As far as western states go, depending on how you look at things, people may or may not be living in a surveillance state—whether they know it or not.

Devices That Serve Both Consumers and Surveillance States, Simultaneously

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Every year, the number of people who own more than one device increases in the millions. Then there is the fact that an increasing percentage of our electronic devices (including TVs, refrigerators, lights, doors and cars) have CPUs in them. They also have the ability to connect to the wider world of the internet. Such devices are part of the growing Internet of Things (IoT) ecosystem.

And while they certainly offer many advantages, especially for the more vulnerable section of the population, they do come with their own set of risks and threats. As is the case most of the time, consumers aren’t privy to the majority of these risks and how using IoT devices exposes them to various online threats. With the current state of surveillance in most western countries, even if consumers knew about the risks, who is to say they could do something to stop it and maybe even find ways to protect themselves against it?


As many media reports have shown, devices that come with voice recognition features installed—such as Alexa or Echo—have the ability to listen to users’ conversations without their consent. They don’t even need an audible command to listen to your everyday conversations. But the problem is much bigger than that. There are a ton of other devices that are watching over us and listening to anything and everything they can sense.

Another prime example is that of Samsung TV sets, which made headlines a while back when reports came out that just like Alexa, they could listen to consumer conversations without their permission or knowledge while in homes as well. Some may say these are just features, not threats to their privacy or liberty. But the majority would agree on the sentiment that a device potentially listening to every word uttered in your own home is a creepy one.

However, newer IoT devices go one step further. They not only listen, but they also send those conversations and associated messages and other information back to the manufacturer’s headquarters. Smartphone devices come with the same capabilities. In fact, they’ve become so good at listening that you do not even have to type to search for things on the internet.

Personal assistants such as Siri and Google Assistant are helping consumers as much as they are helping companies that manufacture them know more about them. What’s more, they can even predict your own behavior before you act on it.

What About Laptops?

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Well, the situation there is not confidence-boosting either. Media reports exposed Lenovo laptops for adware programs that shipped with the units years ago. Even back then, the Lenovo malware had the ability to manipulate advertisements that users saw when using web browsers installed on the system. The malware ran in the background, and hence users had no way of knowing that something was recording virtually everything they did on their computers.

Such laptops may not be a problem for users who only use computers for watching YouTube videos or playing video games. But they are a huge threat for anyone trying to accomplish anything that requires some form of privacy. Such activities include banking, emailing, messaging/chatting, writing documents and checking medical records.

F-Secure, a cybersecurity company, mentioned Lenovo laptops had a specific kind of malware that launched man-in-the-middle or MITM attacks. These allowed hackers to spy on users, record their online activities and then hack into their computers and steal their information. Even more specifically, the malware that they found on Lenovo laptops was Superfish.

Superfish was a bit different from the normal variant of MiTM-launching malware in the sense that it modified the methods Lenovo computers used to travel through the internet. Lenovo machines changed search results for users when they accessed Google’s home page and used it to search for products and services.

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Superfish showed extra information on top of products when users hovered over them and then showed them the same kind of products but at lower prices. The malware also disabled features that allowed web browsers to communicate over the internet securely.

If that wasn’t enough, Superfish was also smart enough to hide only in places that were hard to search on the victim’s computer. Because of that, even if the user somehow found out about Lenovo computers supporting Superfish out of the box and removed it with the help of an antivirus program, it could simply come back and reinstall itself when the user restarted the computer. As mentioned, this is all assuming that the consumer somehow found out that their laptop had malware installed out of the box.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the NSA has long enjoyed the ability to install and then hide surveillance programs in hard drives. The intelligence agency also has had a history of intercepting and bugging different electronic equipment to essentially convert them into spying machines. These machines would start working as soon as a consumer would buy them and turn them on for the first time. There is no reason to doubt that the NSA would have developed even more advanced spying techniques and products in the years since.

Kaspersky Lab researchers discovered that HDDs manufactured by some of the biggest names in the industry, such as Western Digital, Toshiba and Seagate, had state-created spyware in their firmware. The spyware’s code snooped on the machine’s owners and collected vast amounts of data. Not only that, but it would also help hackers to access previously inaccessible networks.


Such types of malware are very commonly found in random USB and/or CD drives. If a user makes the mistake of connecting them to their machine, they start collecting data and then send that data back to HQ once the user connects to the internet.

Again, according to security researchers, such malware does not reside in easy-to-find spaces on the HDD. Instead, they hide in places that make it very hard to detect them, let alone remove them. (For more on this topic, check out our guide on how to tell if your Windows computer has been hacked.)

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Mass surveillance also happens through the use of trackers (made by unknown third-party companies) that almost all modern sites now use, along with cookies. Most modern web browsers do not work without Javascript.

Once a webpage becomes Javascript compatible, it allows trackers to monitor and record different types of user interactions that may take place on that specific webpage. Using features enabled by Javascript, website trackers can know precisely how the user moved his mouse when on the page, which keys they pressed and how much they scrolled.

These trackers can also record passwords and usernames when a website requires a user to input such information.

Tracking technologies are ever-prevalent in the online world. Almost all, if not all, of the world’s most popular websites make use of ad-tech tracking systems from third-party developers to carry out mass surveillance activities.

It shouldn’t be hard to understand how such surveillance can violate user privacy and give rise to newer and more advanced threats in cyberspace. Some scripts are capable of tracking and recording every mouse movement, keystroke pressed and scroll made, in addition to the webpage’s content. They’ll then send all that information to a remote server.

Advanced analytics and internet advertising technology have become so reliable for tech companies that can’t stay afloat without finding new ways to track consumers and link their behavior with market research to sell them more products and services.

Is the UK a Surveillance State?

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The debate regarding the United Kingdom being a surveillance state is an old one. And while there is no definitive answer to that question, no one can deny that many companies are using the U.K. as a testing ground for many types of novel surveillance technologies and policies.

As a whole, the U.K. has less than acceptable policies to deal with surveillance and privacy. For the last several years, many new policies have required the government to make use of a new database. In addition to that, every year or so, the government introduces a new information technology program on a national scale, which is one of the newer models of state surveillance.

And there is a lot of evidence to suggest that the U.K. has at least shown tendencies to become a surveillance state through some democratic and undemocratic actions. First, the government created a national database for things such as iris scans, fingerprints and face scans, citing concerns about threats such as terrorism (this is usually the beginning stage for every eventual surveillance state). It also formed the national database of children when it wanted to “solve” the problem of contact between children services professionals. The government also commissioned a national DNA database that recorded DNA belonging to over 75% of the black male population in England and Whales.

Moreover, the U.K. government has been known to spend vast portions of its crime prevention budget on surveillance technologies such as CCTV all over the country while there is little independent evidence of its efficacy. To combat problems such as predators and other criminals carrying out activities to harm children while they are in school, the British government also developed the criminal records bureau with help from private companies. The bureau, which is operated by the private sector, has been shown to misidentify people as predators, leading regular law-abiding people to lose their jobs.

In an attempt to contain global-scale issues, such as terrorists communicating with each other and impressionable recruits, the U.K. government has put forward an even bigger database. This database is supposed to contain transaction records of all the communications that take place in the country.

So to answer the questions of whether or not the U.K. is a surveillance state, the above historical evidence should be given serious consideration. The U.K. may not be a full-blown surveillance state like China, but it is certainly showing tendencies of becoming one.

What Is Government Surveillance?

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To answer this question as specifically as possible, government surveillance happens when the state/government considers deploying a mass surveillance system as the best possible solution to various societal problems, which may or may not be complex. If you live in a surveillance state, your government will collect information on virtually everyone in the country, irrespective of whether or not the individual or the organization is guilty or innocent. All the while, the state does not think it is carrying out surveillance but only protecting national interests.

Another tell-tale sign of a surveillance state is that it changes laws rather secretly, which continually changes the interpretation of existing laws and the language used to make those laws.


A surveillance state will not only monitor and record activities of legitimate threats to its interests but also threats to its various mass surveillance methods and procedures.

Again, a surveillance state carries out much of its work in secrecy and discredits and degrades entities (people or organizations) that wish to debate their practices, understand them or even inform the public about them. Additionally, a surveillance state (in other words, government surveillance) does not respect the needs and demands of the public. Such states don’t give in to judicial authority and any scrutiny.

What Country Has the Most Surveillance?

It is a toss-up between the United States, the United Kingdom, Iran, North Korea and China. But if you dig deep into it, China is the country that carries out the most extensive and comprehensive surveillance programs on its 1 billion-plus citizenry. Authorities in China (including Hong Kong) have the most advanced surveillance system. They use extensive facial recognition technology, and their monitoring system is vast, allowing them to not only control discussions on social media but also stomp on civil liberties and human rights.

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