Queen's University

Dr. David Lyon

Professor, Department of Sociology, Faculty of Law
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Director, Queen's Surveillance Studies Centre


I am a Professor of Sociology at Queen’s University, where I direct the Surveillance Studies Centre and hold a Queen’s Research Chair in Surveillance Studies.  I am also cross-appointed as a Professor in the Queen’s Faculty of Law.

I was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, and received a B.Sc. and Ph.D. in social science and history at the University of Bradford in Yorkshire, UK, which fueled my fascination with the driving forces and social consequences of some major transformations of the modern world.

My early work wrestled with historical, theoretical and conceptual issues in the social sciences, in particular their relation to religious and Christian commitments, a theme that still runs strongly through my work.

I am best known for my work in Surveillance Studies, and have developed key concepts in the field, such as "social sorting." I have also taught and researched in the areas of information society, globalization, secularization, and postmodernity. I am the author, co-author, editor or co-editor of 29 books.

I am a former co-editor of the journal Surveillance & Society and an Associate Editor of The Information Society and am on the international editorial board of a number of other academic journals. Since 2000 I have led a series of team projects; currently, “Big Data Surveillance” (2015-2020). I am also on the international advisory boards of other major projects in Surveillance Studies.

I have held visiting appointments in a number of universities including Auckland, Bir Zeit, Edinburgh, Leeds, Melbourne, Sydney, Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo, the Centre for Social and Economic Change, Bangalore, and the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris. I have also encouraged surveillance research initiatives and groups around the world, especially in Israel/Palestine and the Middle East, Japan, and Latin America.


Surveillance Studies has been my major research area for the past 25 years and more. I bring a sociological perspective to bear on the issues raised by personal data processing in a database-dependent world. My surveillance interests include border and airport controls, social media, organizational routines, video camera surveillance, citizen registration and identification systems and social media. My concerns include, prominently, the social sorting capacities of contemporary surveillance, and popular participation in surveillance in everyday life, along with an exploration of their ethics and politics.

From the mid-1980s, my broad concerns prompted a critical examination of the much-hyped ‘microelectronics revolution’ that gave way to the so-called ‘information society.’ In the 1990s, I focused my analyses on the social origins, incidence and consequences of processing personal data, arguing that surveillance has become a major dimension of modernity in its own right. This aspect of my research has expanded considerably, especially since 9/11, and involves extensive collaboration with colleagues and students. Surveillance is a globalized phenomenon, and my work focuses increasingly on the global south and on encouraging the development of Surveillance Studies networks around the world.

From 2008-2010 I was a Canada Council Killam Research Fellow, investigating the current rise of national ID card systems in a cross-national comparative perspective. The work complements some of my other studies of surveillance and contributes to both empirical and theoretical understanding of contemporary smart, biometrics-based ID systems.

My recent works include Surveillance After Snowden (Polity 2015)  The Culture of Surveillance (Polity; forthcoming 2018), and I am working on a primer entitled Surveillance: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford) and a book on surveillance ethics, The Eye of God: Surveillance Ethics for a Secular Age (Oxford).


While I am best known for my work in Surveillance Studies, my research and writing span several other areas as well. Starting in Historical Sociology in the 1970s, my early work was on secularization processes – and the critique of some key theories -- in the modern world. Today, I try to keep abreast of debates over the "post-secular" with an emphasis on the work of Charles Taylor. Following this, my main research directions explore other forms of social transformation that are both characteristic and constitutive of modernity. This understanding of the secular also informs my work on surveillance ethics.

Surveillance Studies Centre

As the Director of the Surveillance Studies Centre, I work with a multidisciplinary and international team on several related initiatives from primary research to theoretical development as well as associated media, policy and advocacy activities. The current team project is on “Big Data Surveillance” (2015-2020) and is funded by the SSHRC Partnership Grant program. It has streams on security, marketing, and governance and the academic team works in conjunction with privacy commissions and NGOs. This offers opportunities for a number of PhD students and postdoctoral fellows within Sociology and related disciplines.


Most Recent Project

The Culture of Surveillance

This book explores the imaginaries and practices of everyday surveillance, at work, at play, in school, at home, in ‘public’ domains and ‘private’ ones. Its main focus is not high-tech, rationalized surveillance operations but our mundane experiences of surveillance, that are kaleidoscopically varied, often emotional, and that range from the casual and unthought to the focused and intentional.

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Other Projects

  • Big Data Surveillance

    This SSHRC funded project is led by SSC Director David Lyon, with a team of five co-investigators, ten collaborators, and ten national and international academic and non-academic partners from public policy and activism groups.

    The goal of the 'Big Data Surveillance' project is to understand big data surveillance by examining the relationship between big data and surveillance in three linked streams: Security, Marketing, and Governance. Each stream involves personal datasets and the meshing of public-and-private sectors. This project examines both the internal dynamics of each and the practical connections between them, such as data-flows from one to another, in ways that affect practice.

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  • Surveillance and the Eye of God

    Surveillance is sometimes spoken of as a God’s eye view of the world. This idea is explored in relation to the ‘objective gaze’ of disengaged reason in the Enlightenment and its technologically-reinforced modes in the twenty-first century. The rise of the eye-centred viewpoint is coincident with the ‘great disembedding’ of individuals from the social. This in turn also prompted the self-disciplines of modernity, which are now key aspects of the power-base of modern institutions. A crucial moment in this shift was Bentham’s panopticon proposal, in which the knowledge regime of secularism started to shape social imaginaries in relation to surveillance. While secular omniscience was sought through the surveillance gaze, and explored later in the work of Foucault, Debord and others, the eye-centred view is not without critics. We draw upon some biblical resources, notably, the story of Hagar, that query the centrality of ‘objective vision’. Instead, an ethic of care is proposed, based in part on a fresh understanding of the ‘eye of God’. It is argued that the implications of the care ethic go far deeper than current appeals to privacy, data protection, civil liberties or human rights.

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