Despite extensive criticisms of mass surveillance and mobilization by civil liberties and digital rights activists, surveillance has paradoxically been extended and legalized in the name of security. How do some democratic claims against surveillance appear to be normal and common-sense, whereas others are deemed unacceptable, even outlandish? Instead of
starting from particular “logics” of either security or democracy, this paper proposes to develop a political sociology of disputes to trace how the relation between security and democracy is shaped by critique in practice. Disputes entail critique and demands for justification. They allow us to account for the constraints which govern whether an argument is deemed acceptable or improper; commonsensical or peculiar. We mobilize disputes in conjunction with Arjun Appadurai’s reflections on “small numbers” in democracies in order to understand how justifications of surveillance for security enact a “rise in generality,” whereas critiques of digital surveillance that mobilize democratic claims enact a “descent into singularity.” To this purpose, we analyze public mobilizations against mass surveillance and challenges brought before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). We draw on interviews with a range of actors involved in the disputes, the parties’ submissions, oral hearings, judgments, and public reports.