The Rise and Proliferation of State-Driven Mass Surveillance

Lecture by Dr Christopher Parsons, Senior Research Associate at the Citizen Lab, in the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy with the University of Toronto. This is the second of three lectures in the Frontier Seminar Series: "An interdisciplinary approach to digital threats”.


As activists, advocates, scholars, and journalists have engaged in activities intended to advance civil and democratic rights, many government agencies around the world have responded by adopting and deploying increasingly potent surveillance technologies which are often technically authorized by opaque interpretations of black letter law. In this talk, I will discuss some of the most prominent, and disturbing, trends that exist today: the rise and proliferation of state-backed malware, and the increasing availability and use of domestic and international mass surveillance capabilities that are used to identify and restrict the efficacy of human rights-oriented advocacy. I argue that the rise of these trends follow, at least in part, from states’ failures or unwillingness to inhibit the development and sale of surveillance products to democratic and non-democratic state actors alike. Reforming state practices may involve the revisitation of human-centric theories of security and away from theories of real politick that routinely dominate digital security and surveillance debates.


Dr Christopher Parsons received his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the University of Guelph, and his PhD from the University of Victoria. He is currently a Senior Research Associate at the Citizen Lab, in the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy with the University of Toronto. His research focuses on third-party access to telecommunications data, data privacy, data security, and national security. His work has been recognized by information and privacy commissioners, Canadian political parties, and national and international non-profits as advancing the state of privacy discourse.

Christopher Parsons has been involved in projects examining: lawful access legislation, national security and intelligence legislation and practices, identity management systems, automatic license plate recognition technologies, network management and surveillance practices in Western democratic states, technical and policy issues linked to encryption, privacy issues linked to social media services, policy and privacy challenges associated with IMSI Catchers, the privacy implications of unmanned aerial vehicles, and threats associated with stalkerware. In addition to publishing in academic journals and presses, he routinely presents findings to members of government and the media.

If you wish to attend, please register here (registration closed)

Frontier Seminar Series

This frontier seminar series, funded by the former Centre for Communication and Computing (CCC), aims to host talks by renowned scholars and advance the interdisciplinary understanding of the repressive response and reaction from the regime in the digital age around the global.

While scholars have spent a lot of time understanding how people adopt digital technologies in political actions, how the regime – be it democratic, authoritarian, or hybrid – responds to the rise of digital challenge with the aid of digital technologies remains a relevant yet vastly understudied topic. Nowadays, “China Model” or “Russia Model” of Net Control significantly hinders the emancipatory potential, albeit not necessarily democratic, of digital technologies around the world.

Individual freedoms and civil rights are under threat, as Middle East governments hold increasing state cyber-tracking and monitoring capabilities, as well as the capacity to censor or shut down social networks and Internet connectivity. In democratic regimes like USA, the use of terms like “misinformation” and “fake news” as a rhetorical tool deliberately undermines dissident views, attack opponents, or discredits media scrutiny.

This seminar series invite scholars with interdisciplinary background from political sciences, sociology, computer science, and communication to present their up-to-date researches and thoughts about what one may call “digital threats” – or what the Freedom House calls “digital authoritarianism” – how different regimes adapt themselves to digital circumstance and react to challenges from digital technologies – such as information distraction, propaganda, confusion, and censorship.

The talks will shed light on our understanding of various processes and consequences of mediated/unmediated communication behaviours on human attitudes, cognitions, and behaviours using computational approaches in a social science framework.

The seminar series especially wants to facilitate potential exchange and collaboration – including external research applications – among CCC colleagues and invited speakers about the use of computerized tools and algorithms for collecting, processing, analyzing, and visualizing large-scale, complex data.

The first seminar of the series was held on 8 October, the third seminar will be held on 27 November.

Organizer: Jun Liu, Associate Professor