Call for Papers: Ethical Governance of Surveillance Technologies in Times of Crisis: Global Challenges and Divergent Perspectives

The Utrecht Centre for Global Challenges invites submissions for this interdisciplinary online workshop examining how crises and crisis-narratives interact with the ongoing transformation in the governance of surveillance technologies in different parts of the world. This event is organised by the research platform on Disrupting Technological Innovation? Towards an Ethical and Legal Framework within the Utrecht Centre for Global Challenges.

In order to facilitate participation from a wide range of global perspectives, the workshop will take place online during two sessions:  Friday 30 October (9:00 – noon, Central European Time) and Thursday 5 November 2020 (14:30-17:30, CET). Each interactive session will include presentations, discussions in breakout groups,  and plenary panel discussion, integrating input from the breakout sessions.


The increasing sophistication and globalisation of surveillance technologies has intensified concerns about whether existing governance structures and human rights principles provide adequate protections for individuals.  At the same time, the urgent need for effective coordination of responses to global crises has strengthened calls for solutions that rely heavily on surveillance technologies. Faced with these conflicting concerns, many states are increasingly invoking ‘extraordinary circumstances’ to legitimate the heightened surveillance of individuals. But there are profound differences between and within countries in how much weight is given to appeals to crises. 

The Covid-19 pandemic provides a particularly compelling illustration of this constellation of issues raised at the intersection of surveillance technology, divergent perspectives, and crisis narratives. Taking the Covid-19 pandemic as a point of departure, the workshop will emphasise a comparative approach to this intersection of issues – including comparisons with the role of surveillance technologies in other global crises – with special emphasis on divergent perspectives from across the globe.

One of the defining characteristics of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the heightened awareness of the extent to which one’s behaviour can have dramatic effects on others. In order to  change behaviour and monitor threats, governments around the world are taking a number of ‘emergency’ measures within, or even outside, existing legal frameworks. Contact tracing via smartphones is one prominent example of surveillance technology being used either to produce behaviour change or monitor compliance or both.

Typically, these measures are presented as temporary. Yet it is widely known that some of the governmental responses to previous crises have been normalised and perpetuated. A similar concern arises with governmental responses to the Covid-19 pandemic and other global crises. But the ethical governance surveillance technology is merely a matter of protecting the individual actors from government interference with privacy. Private actors also need to be held accountable. As the UN’s Special Rapporteur David Kaye articulated in his report entitled ‘Surveillance and Human Rights’, in the development and use of digital surveillance tools, public and private sectors are ‘close collaborators’. Such public-private collaboration regarding digital surveillance can be even intensified during the times of crisis.

While the Covid-19 pandemic is a global crisis, governments differ in terms of how they intend to track individuals’ movement and data. This variance gives rise to a further question of the varied acceptability of digital surveillance among different societies. As the UN Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on Digital Cooperation acknowledged its June 2019 report, concepts and expectations of privacy ‘differ across cultures and societies’. Different justifications can be readily put forward in balancing individuals’ privacy against other interests during the times of crisis.

The workshop will examine various national and regional initiatives taken in response to Covid-19 pandemic in order to collect, store, analyse, and transfer individuals’ data. The workshop will take a comparative approach, so that we can compare some of the responses to the pandemic to those of previous so-called crises.

The Workshop Theme

We welcome papers that address one (or more) of the following thematic perspectives:

  • Politics and science:  What are the roles of expertise and scientific narrative in changing the use of surveillance technologies in times of crisis?
  • Human rights and ethics:  How can human rights and/or ethics provide effective limits to the governance of surveillance technologies in times of crisis?
  • Language and culture:  What roles, if any, do cultural and/or linguistic factors play in the use of surveillance technologies in times of crisis?

In addressing one (or more) of the aforementioned thematic perspectives, we welcome papers that engage with some of the following aspects of governance in times of crisis:

  1. Institutional design for resilience
  2. Regulation in emergency powers
  3. Enforcement of emergency powers
  4. Exit strategies; transition back to a (new) normal
  5. Comparative aspects in terms of global crisis response (from terrorism to climate change)

We particularly encourage submissions from researchers and practitioners from the broadly defined Global South.

Submission of Abstracts and the Timeline

Abstracts for working papers should include a description of 300-500 words and institutional affiliation(s) of the author(s). The abstract should be submitted by 15 July 2020 and include:

  • Title of the paper
  • Research question(s)
  • Methodology and/or overall line of argument
  • Expected findings, conclusions, and/or recommendations

Submissions should cover work that has not been previously published. Abstracts should be submitted in PDF format to via the following Dropbox ‘Request link’: (Abstracts will be deleted once the programme is set. Only the organisers can see your submission.)

Selected participants will be informed by 31 July 2020. At the workshop, the invited authors should give a presentation based on a working paper of 3,000-5,000 words (excluding references) that will be submitted by 16 October 2020 for distribution to the other participants. (Possibilities for publishing selected final papers in a special journal symposium or an edited volume will be discussed at a later date.)

Start date and time
End date and time

For questions, please contact: Joel Anderson (, Machiko Kanetake (, and Lucky Belder (