Students Perceptions of Surveillance for the ‘Common Good’ During COVID-19

This study explores the everyday practices of phone use in university students and their attitudes towards a surveillance culture and control during the time of the COVID-19 ‘lockdown’.  During the time of this study, an app was released by the Australian Government asking Australians to put aside their concern for privacy and instead consider the greater public good. Btihaj (2017) refers to this as ‘the emerging tension between philanthropic discourses of data sharing and issues’ and argues that when we are made amenable to management and monitoring techniques this echoes an ‘ethos of neoliberalism’ and a ‘biopolitics of the self’ (p.1).

Crisis points have historically been a time of introducing increased surveillance and control and relaxing of privacy protections. Zuboff (2017) argues the neoliberal fear of totalitarian collectivism set the preconditions for today’s surveillance capitalism and new forms of undemocratic instrumental power and ‘radical indifference’ (p. 505).  From neoliberal Orwellian fears of totalitarian regimes to the Dotcom bubble implosion we have seen a reversal of figure and ground where the promise of techno-solutionism means ethical concerns for the other are put aside in return for the perceived promise of a common good  (Morozov 2013, Rushkoff 2019, McChesney 2013).

We all participate in a culture of surveillance which is is not only done to us but as we survey each other, watch our kids, check traffic and agree to the terms and conditions in ways informed by the state, the economy and society (Lyons, 2018). Lyons points out that this makes it near ‘impossible not to participate’ in a surveillance culture which is ‘a fluid form of surveillance, constantly melting, morphing and merging, in ways that reflect the liquidity of data flows’ (P.55).  How might students resist exploitative surveillance capitalism and foster surveillance truly conducive to the common good and favourable forms of surveillance, privacy, autonomy and solidarity?

Literature Review

Privacy and surveillance are issues are older than ‘the eyes are the window to the soul’ dictum. Surveillance is a response to threats or a threat, involves the state, the private sector, and interpersonal relations (Marx, 2015 P.733). Dependent on context and comportment it is neither good or bad as a mother may surveil her child’s safety and a merchant their customer (ibid). Many contemporary theorists offer a narrower definition tied to the goal of control (e.g., Dandeker, 1990; Lyon, 2001; Manning, 2008; Monahan, 2010 in Marx 2015). Taking a cue from Foucault’s earlier writings, control as domination is emphasized in these definitions.

Liquid surveillance is a ‘way of situating surveillance developments in the fluid and unsettling modernity of today’ (Lyon & Bauman 2013, p.3). The term borrows from Zygmont Bauman’s Liquid Modernity which emphasizes the reality of the accelerated societal change of in the modern world where change and uncertainty are the only givens and works as a framework and metaphor for contemporary surveillance – contrasting the ‘mobile, pulsating signals of today’s flowing forms’ with the ‘fixity and spatial orientation of solid modern surveillance’ (p. 15). In today’s ubiquitous and mobile surveillance. there is increased focused attention to personal details for purposes of influence, management, or control.  Lyon (2013) argues that the use of searchable databases and their access provokes questions question of power, risk distribution, social justice and freedom where decisions are made, and life choices affected based on concatenated data. Adiaphorization is the of action-orientated distancing effect of this environment which occurs ‘when systems and processes become split off from any consideration of morality’ and the piecemail data double tend to be trusted more than the person, who prefers to tell their own tale’ (p. 8). Bauman gives the example of dating apps ‘when another human being is treated along the lines of a commodity good, selected according to colour, size, and number of add-ups, adiaphorization is in full swing and at its most devastating’ (p. 137). 

In the era of surveillance capitalism, running on an upgraded operating system of extractive capitalism,  new forms of undemocratic instrumental power have been created using our ‘data exhausts’ to creation prediction products, bought and sold in the marketplace, to sell goods (Zeboff, 2008). Activist academic theorists alert readers of the increased surrender of autonomy in the co-option of digital technologies (Rushkoff 2019, McChesney 2013).  With a few exceptions like Wikipedia, the early Gaiamind vision of a free and ethical open-source, democratic and distributed internet Berners-Lee, invented and gaive away the World Wide Web protocol was surrendered to the indifferent flow of capital with the first ads (Ibid). The ‘point of government regulation, pure and simple, became to help firms maximize their profits, and that was the new public interest’ (p. 107). In a portrayal of youth culture and a move fast and break things disruptor sprit, the tech guru celebrities of Silicon Valley perform the hip democratic values, as capitalism churns through subculture and the private in its need for evermore ‘authentic’ means of renewal but what they inevitably deliver is shareholder value (Potter 2010). 

The student experience, rather than Bentham’s Panopticon (1995) and Foucault’s disciplinary society (1977, 1998), the rapid change and lack of regulation makes it more illustrative of Deleuze’s Society of Control (1998). Rather than surveillance having been confined to one place, use and mobility are encouraged as with the COVID 19 app designed to get the economy moving.  The more you use your phone them more you will get surveilled, the more you fly, the more facial recognition data there is. Control is no longer about confining individuals and disciplining, rather freedoms are exchanged for data as dividuals are segmented into marketing statistics and aggregates – the number is replaced by the code (Ibid). Where this becomes the accepted society, students will need to find their own way to re-establish autonomy and meaningful ethical connection.How do students then construct digital identities, digital doppelgangers (Bode & Kristensen, 2016) and a democratic public sphere (Khan, 2008) where critique is possible and new forms of emancipatory privacy and surveillance cultures can emerge?


Marshall, Moore & Barbour (2020) advise it is important to understand ‘the formation of the public self online or offline as these new generations of persona are instrumental in the way in which our contemporary culture operates and our new positions within these shift political/ cultural/ economic spaces’ and ‘read the patterns of connection that are producing our personas’ (p.129). By examining students behaviours in the way they construct their digital doubles and their habits, this study intends to construct a picture of how and if the formation of new types of resistance to the hegemony of neoliberalism and instrumental powers of surveillance capitalism is possible.

To gain an understanding of the practices, attitudes and perceptions concerning digital surveillance and information privacy university students were surveyed. The participants were preselected as part of a communications research cohort and the survey was a course requirement. Australian universities typically have a high concentration of international students and this was the case here. Ten random deidentified students completed questionnaires that were distributed to them.

Students were aged between 20 and 33 with an average age of 22.7 median average age was 22.5 (fig. 1.).

Figure 1. Age Distribution of Students

Females (90 per cent) were strongly represented in the group (table. 1)

Table 1. Gender Distribution

The survey consisted of undergraduate students in Business (3), Commerce (3) and Communications degrees (4) (fig.2).

Internet habits were surveyed to find out students typical purposes for using their phones (6) to ascertain their participatory engagement in the creation of democratic spaces online. Time online was measured by adding recreation (17), work (11), and study time (14) online and comparing this to what students recorded as total time (7).

To uncover insights into surveillance and democratic literacy students were also asked questions on what they typically do online as well as their thoughts on (31) if digital spaces online afford digital civic rights (29),  and the extent to which is the internet a conduit for real democratic public discussions (28) and their understanding of the public sphere. (See survey questions in the appendix.)


Students spent on average 7.12 hours online each week (median 6.5 and mode 11). The most popular reason for going online was for study (2. 65 hours) while work was the least likely reason (1.95 hours)

Figure 2. Mean average weekly hours spent online


The most typical things students did on their phones (all students) was to send and receive text messages and emails which indicates students are making and maintaining personal connections or carrying out official tasks (fig. 4).  

Connecting was important for students and 90 per cent involved themselves socially on platforms or talked to others on their phones. Another high use activity was browsing the web (fig. 4).

Only 20 per cent of students used an add blocker which could mean the other 80 per cent of students either don’t mind getting served ads, don’t know about ad blockers or they filter out ads. The use of a VPN was also used in the group on one occasion (fig. 4).

Figure 3. Things Students do on Smartphones

Public Sphere

Where students were asked to explain what the public sphere was, all students indicated an understanding with answers like  ‘a gathering of people coming together to discuss social problems to bring to the attention of politicians in an attempt to drive change’ whereas one student identified the public sphere as ‘a big influencer’ who may not have previously had the opportunity to get heard.  

The internet a conduit for real democratic public discussions

Most students (8) believed the Internet was a democratic conduit with some saying it was ‘extremely’ effective and could ‘generate change’ through individualist actions like signing petitions and even events like the ‘Egyptian Revolution’ (Arab Spring). Only one student mentioned that ‘individuals or governments’ could also control.  There was also not any mention (0) of any type of undemocratic coercion or control by tech companies or mention of surveillance culture.

Digital spaces online affording digital civic rights (31)

Students indicated that ‘in order to use internet sites, we agree to ignore this and give up a degree of privacy because websites profit off our data. One mentioned the need for rules ‘to protect one’s privacy, freedom of expression, to access knowledge and to protect consumer rights. Many of the students (6) mentioned the need for some type of regulation to protect rights.


Where students are spending more than seven hours of their life each week online issues of privacy, autonomy, coercion and surveillance culture are of concern. Few students indicated using ad-blockers, VPN’s or other means to conceal, hide their identity, or were mindful of the abilities of coercive interests influencing them. In talking about surveillance culture few students mentioned how we surveil ourselves and others in a way in which liquid surveillance has entered our lives and times (Lyon & Bauman 2013). Where surveillance was talked about in many ways it was more conceptualised from a Big Brother perspective rather than any mention of the way data disciplines (Foucault) or controls (Deleuze, 1998). However, these same students, many from communications majors, had a strong understanding of the public sphere which could indicate the need to adopt notions of a public sphere to the contemporary environment and the ways identities are constructed in online spaces.


In this study, we explored ways students resist exploitative surveillance capitalism and foster new forms surveillance, privacy, autonomy and solidarity. While students were aware of the principles of democracy and the public sphere, what was missing was a critical surveillance literacy in the hidden ways coercive forms infiltrate culture and society. While the small sample size in this survey leads to significant quantitative inaccuracies, what is evident is that students would do well to develop a literacy of surveillance culture beyond the Big Brother imaginary.

The dot-com stock market crash, September 11, COVID-19, Edward Snowden, Wikileaks and Cambridge Analytica all point towards increasing awareness and literacy of the reality of surveillance capitalism but as we enter the Internet of Things, how will young people respond with an Internet of Humanity.


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