Skip to content
Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter June 20, 2020

A Neo-Republican Theory of Just State Surveillance

  • Patrick Taylor Smith EMAIL logo


This paper develops a novel, neo-republican account of just state surveillance in the information age. The goal of state surveillance should be to avoid and prevent domination, both public and private. In light of that conception of justice, the paper makes three substantive points. First, it argues that modern state surveillance based upon information technology and predicated upon a close partnership with the tech sector gives the state significant power and represents a serious potential source of domination. Second, it argues that, nonetheless, state surveillance can serve legitimate republican ends and so unilateral and private technological attempts to block it may be wrongful. Third, it argues that, despite the serious normative failings of current institutions, state surveillance can be justly regulated and made accountable through a legal liability regime that incentivizes tech company intermediaries to ally with civil society groups in order to safeguard the privacy rights of potential subjects of state surveillance.


I owe much gratitude to the workshop ‘The Ethics of Mass State Surveillance’ at Karlrsuhe Institute of Technology. I owe additional thanks to Kevin Macnish, Peter Königs, and two anonymous reviewers.


Aitchinson, G. (2016). ‘Three Models of Republican Rights: Juridical, Parliamentary and Populist’, Political Studies 65 (2): 339–355.10.1177/0032321716648339Search in Google Scholar

Anonymous. (2018). ‘Cooperation or Resistance: The Role of Tech Companies in Government Surveillance’, Harvard Law Review 131 (6): 1722–1741.Search in Google Scholar

Bauman, Z. (2006). Liquid Fear (Cambridge, MA: Polity).Search in Google Scholar

Bauman, Z., Bigo, D., and Esteves, P. (2014). ‘After Snowden: Rethinking the Impact of Surveillance’, International Political Sociology 8 (2): 121–144.10.1111/ips.12048Search in Google Scholar

Bellamy, R. (2013). ‘Rights, Republicanism and Democracy’, in A. Niederberger and P. Schink (eds.). Republican Democracy: Liberty, Laws and Politics (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press): 253–275.10.3366/edinburgh/9780748643066.003.0011Search in Google Scholar

Calabresi, G. (1961). ‘Some Thoughts on Risk Distribution and the Law of Torts’, Yale Law Journal 70 (4): 499–553.10.2307/794261Search in Google Scholar

Cole, D. (2014). ‘The Three Leakers and What to Do about Them’, The New York Review of Books February 6.Search in Google Scholar

Currier, J. (2017). ‘70% of Value in Tech Is Driven by Network Effects’, NfX, November 28. (Accessed July 1st, 2019).Search in Google Scholar

Diamond, L. (1994). ‘Rethinking Civil Society’, Journal of Democracy 5 (3): 4–17.10.1353/jod.1994.0041Search in Google Scholar

Hess, A. (2016). ‘The Far Right Has a New Digital Safe Space’, The New York Times November 30.Search in Google Scholar

Hoye, J.M. and Monaghan, J. (2015). ‘Surveillance, Freedom and the Republic’, European Journal of Political Theory 17 (3): 343–363.10.1177/1474885115608783Search in Google Scholar

Human Rights Watch. (2018). ‘The EU General Data Protection Regulation: Questions and Answers’, in Google Scholar

Johnson, V. (2008). ‘Data Security and Tort Liability’, Journal of Internet Law 11 (7): 22–31.Search in Google Scholar

Katz, M. and Shapiro, C. (1994). ‘System Competition and Network Effects’, Journal of Economic Perspectives 8 (2): 93–115.10.1257/jep.8.2.93Search in Google Scholar

Kisielewski, A. (2016). ‘To Encrypt or Not Encrypt’, The Century Foundation, May 5. =1 (Accessed April 25, 2020) .Search in Google Scholar

Klein, S. and Lee, C.-S. (2019). ‘Towards a Dynamic Theory of Civil Society: The Politics of Forward and Backward Infiltration’, Sociological Theory 37 (1): 62–88.10.1177/0735275119830451Search in Google Scholar

Laborde, C. (2010). ‘Republicanism and Global Justice: A Sketch’, European Journal of Political Theory 9 (1): 48–69.10.1177/1474885109349404Search in Google Scholar

Lovett, F. (2010). A General Theory of Domination and Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press).10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199579419.001.0001Search in Google Scholar

Macnish, K. (2014). ‘Just Surveillance? Towards a Normative Theory of Surveillance’, Surveillance & Society 12 (1): 142–153.10.24908/ss.v12i1.4515Search in Google Scholar

Macnish, K. (2015). ‘An Eye for an Eye: Proportionality and Surveillance’, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 18 (3): 529–548.10.1007/s10677-014-9537-5Search in Google Scholar

Peterson, A. (2013). ‘LOVEINT: When NSA Officers Use Their Spying Power on Love Interests’. The Washington Post, August 8.Search in Google Scholar

Pettit, P. (1997). Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government (Oxford: Oxford University Press).Search in Google Scholar

Pettit, P. (2012). On the People’s Terms: A Republican Philosophy of Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).10.1017/CBO9781139017428Search in Google Scholar

Priel, D. (2010). ‘A Public Role for the Intentional Torts’, King’s Law Journal 22 (2): 183–208.10.1017/CBO9781139856478.014Search in Google Scholar

Ripstein, A. (2009). Force and Freedom: Kant’s Moral and Political Philosophy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).10.4159/9780674054516Search in Google Scholar

Roberts, A. (2015). ‘A Republican Account of the Value of Privacy’, European Journal of Political Theory 14 (3): 320–344.10.1177/1474885114533262Search in Google Scholar

Rozenshtein, A. (2018). ‘Surveillance Intermediaries’, Stanford Law Review 70 (1): pp. 91–189.Search in Google Scholar

Silva, R. (2015). ‘Non-Domination and Political Institutions: The Contested Concept of Republican Democracy’, Brazilian Political Science Review 9 (1): 3–38.10.1590/1981-38212014000200001Search in Google Scholar

Smith, P.T. (2019). ‘A Normative Foundation for Statism’, Critical Review of Social and Political Philosophy Early view 10.1080/13698230.2019.1567207.Search in Google Scholar

Smith v. Maryland(1979) 442 U.S. 735.Search in Google Scholar

Solove, D. and Citron, D. (2017). ‘Risk and Anxiety: A Theory of Data-Breach Harms’, Texas Law Review 96: 737.10.2139/ssrn.2885638Search in Google Scholar

Stahl, T. (2016). ‘Indiscriminate Mass Surveillance and the Public Sphere’, Ethics of Information Technology10.1007/s10676-016-9392-2.Search in Google Scholar

Stilz, A. (2009). Liberal Loyalty: Freedom, Obligation, and the State (Princeton: Princeton University Press).10.1515/9781400830701Search in Google Scholar

Taylor, I. (2017). ‘Data Collection, Counterterrorism and the Right to Privacy’, Politics, Philosophy, and Economics 16 (3): 326–346.10.1177/1470594X17715249Search in Google Scholar

Zittrain, J. (2008). The Internet and How to Stop It (New Haven: Yale University Press).Search in Google Scholar

Zuboff, S. (2019). The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (New York: Public Affairs).Search in Google Scholar

Published Online: 2020-06-20
Published in Print: 2020-05-26

© 2020 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

Downloaded on 31.3.2023 from
Scroll to top button