Does Surveillance Work?

In The Lives of Others, the Academy-Award winning film of 2006, two Stasi agents monitor a theatre performance. One, looking through his binoculars, seems relieved and notes that the playwright is “our only non-subversive writer.” The other agent replies “I’d have him monitored.” And thus, the drama unfolds. The playwright is bugged, strangers follow him on the streets, his letters are opened. When a close friend – a blacklisted theatre director – kills himself, the playwright has enough. He joins the opposition. Was it surveillance that caused the playwright to voice dissent?

Whether surveillance is an effective tool to prevent dissent is a longstanding question across the social sciences. Unfortunately, it’s also a question that’s difficult to answer. For one, surveillance is typically concealed. Surveillance is also not randomly applied. In addition, autocratic regimes do their best to cover their tracks. The Stasi, for instance, destroyed most of their files when the Berlin Wall came down. All that said, the sheer size of the surveillance apparatuses in China, Belarus or the Eastern Bloc suggests that autocracies seem to believe that surveillance helps them fight the opposition.

In theory, surveillance works 

Theoretically, there are good reasons to think surveillance “works.” Effective anti-regime opposition requires good communication, effective organization and trust. Surveillance blocks all three ingredients: it allows the government to perturb information flows, infiltrate opposition networks and, perhaps most important, sow mistrust. Many scholars therefore argue that surveillance successfully mutes resistance.

Beyond the group-level, surveillance may also instill fear in the population, thus muting any individual-level urge to resist a regime. The experience of being surveilled can induce an almost obsessive compliance with the law. Eugeniusz Gatnar, a dissident in communist-era Poland, described this in his memoirs: “I knew that the secret police were following me. I always told myself: don’t cross the street on a red light, validate tickets in the tram.”

Ideal vs. reality

For surveillance to be effective, it arguably needs to be secret and focused. Yet, in reality, surveillance measures depart from this ideal. Communities frequently realize that they are being spied on. One dissident from communist-era Poland, for instance, recalls how the secret police at a university in Katowice “tried to conceal their surveillance, but they did it poorly.” Everyone knew that the secret police infiltrated student organizations, which made participants highly alert.

The supposedly focused nature of surveillance is also questionable. The Stasi and the Polish SB were known to surveil individuals indiscriminately, collecting minute information about citizens’ personal lives. A lot of these details were unrelated to any form of political opposition. As Josef Skvorecky, a Czech communist-era dissident, observed, “[the secret police] collect information because they feel they must – you never know when some tidbit of information may be useful to the authorities, may provide an excuse to prosecute someone, anyone.”

In practice, then, surveillance can turn into a comprehensive, intrusive form of repression. Rather than target a few key opposition figures, states violate many citizens’ privacy indiscriminately, and citizens are aware of it. As such, surveillance can turn into a humiliating form of repression, which has been shown to enrage citizens. As noted by Gurr, “if men are exposed to noxious stimuli that they cannot avoid or overcome, they have an innate disposition to strike out at their sources.”

How surveillance can backfire

In a new article, we explore these ambivalent theoretical considerations by drawing on fine-grained data from Communist Poland. We measure the incidence of surveillance drawing on declassified data on secret police agents in 297 Upper Silesian communities. Against the popular belief that “surveillance works”, we show that secret police agents positivelypredict strikes and anti-regime protests. These strikes ultimately marked the foundation of Solidarity (Solidarność) – the movement that toppled the Polish regime in 1989. Surveillance, it seems, backfired.

Gauging whether surveillance causes protests, however, is not easy. Perhaps, the government assigned secret policy agents to dissident communities. To address this concern, we make use of an instrumental variable: the location of corrupted Catholic priests. In the 1950s, Catholic priests were instrumental in hiring secret police agents, but whether there were corruptible priests in any given community was arguably exogenous. Using priests as an instrument for secret police agents, we then confirm that protests rise in communities with more pronounced surveillance.

Correlation between the number of secret police commanders and the number of Solidarity strikes across localities in Upper Silesia, southern Poland.

Why did surveillance backfire?

Why did surveillance spark protests in Communist Poland? In our paper, we first examined why individual people would join the opposition after being surveilled. Drawing on archival materials, we find that surveillance created widespread anger. Polish dissidents argued that the constant monitoring was a humiliating experience, which led them to lash out against the regime by taking to the streets. Leopold Tyrmand, a well-known opposition writer in Communist Poland, observed: “The fact that [secret police] know better than I remember what I was doing in November and which of my eleven underpants I liked most […] was highly mobilizing.”

But anger alone cannot alone explain the success of Solidarity, which was a highly-risky collective endeavor. We therefore also assess how surveillance could have strengthened anti-regime collective action. Unexpectedly, we find that one of the hallmarks of surveillance in communist regimes – the heavy reliance on civilian informants – was one of its major weaknesses: The widespread use of informers meant that surveillance could be conducted by anyone, including close acquaintances or relatives. One might expect that the resulting mistrust would have made it harder for the opposition to organize. Instead, we argue, widespread mistrust provided citizens with an incentive to reveal their true loyalties in public – a bit like the playwright in The Lives of Others. By openly acting against the regime, people proved to their friends that they were not collaborators. In one testimony, for instance, a dissident countered suspicion against him with a public hunger strike. And many others followed suit.

Surveillance and dissent beyond Poland

How do the findings from Communist Poland compare to surveillance in other regimes? To tackle this question, we rely on the U.S. Department of State’s Country Reports on Human Rights (h/t to Chris Farris), which provides a comprehensive view of repression around the globe. Based on the reports, we measured surveillance in 202 countries between 1981 to 1986 and combined this information with global protest data. Interestingly, our conclusions from the Polish case seem to extend to other countries. Figure 3 shows that, across the 1980s, surveillance went hand in hand with higher levels of protests – both in communist states as well as in other non-communist authoritarian regimes. Even in 2019 we find that surveillance predicts protests.

Correlation between the number of the use of surveillance and the number of protests across 202 countries in 1980s

What are the implications of surveillance in Communist Poland for today’s world? A first salient question is whether traditional, in-person surveillance can inform our understanding of modern digital surveillance. We believe that digital surveillance is a less likely driver of anti-regime resistance. For one, digital surveillance is more covert than traditional forms of physical surveillance. Citizens may therefore harbor less anger against the regime, given that the enemy is less visible. Additionally, digital surveillance does not rely on the use of informants. It therefore does not create similar levels of mistrust within communities, which is a crucial precondition to incentivize the revelation of one’s loyalties. Modern dissidents in Belarus, China or Russia arguably have a harder time evading their regimes’ radar.


  • Krzysztof Krakowski

    Krzysztof Krakowski is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Collegio Carlo Alberto in Turin. He received a M.Sc. from the University of Oxford and Ph.D. from the European University Institute. His research has focused on the social consequences of political conflict. His work appeared in the American Political Science Review, Comparative Political Studies, and Journal of Conflict Resolution, and Journal of Peace Research, among others.

  • Anselm Hager

    Anselm Hager is Assistant Professor of International Politics at Humboldt-University in Berlin. He received his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 2017. He studies question at the intersection of comparative and international politics, including development, protests, and inequality. Most of his work uses modern methods of causal inference. His work appeared in the American Political Science Review, the American Journal of Political Science and the Journal of Politics, among others.

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