Mass Surveillance

"You had to live – did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every moment scrutinized."

George Orwell (1903 – 1950), from '1984'
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This free ESL lesson plan on mass surveillance has been designed for adults and young adults at an intermediate (B1/B2) to advanced (C1/C2) level and should last around 45 to 60 minutes for one student.

Big Brother is watching you. Perhaps. If Big Brother wanted to or had a need to, he could certainly be watching you while you’re reading this. Mass surveillance, or state surveillance, is technology that allows the government to observe or listen to what its citizens are doing. Any increase in mass surveillance is surely to be excused as protecting citizens against criminals and terrorists, yet it is usually those who oppose the government or believe in alternative ideologies that find themselves targeted by these new powers. In this ESL lesson plan on mass surveillance, students will have the opportunity to discuss and express their opinions on issues such as how governments keep tabs on their citizens and the privacy concerns of this.

For advice on how to use this English lesson plan and other lesson plans on this site, see the guide for ESL teachers.


Reading activity
Before the English class, send the following article to the students and ask them to read it while making a list of any new vocabulary or phrases they find (explain any the students don’t understand in the class):

BBC | Edward Snowden: Leaks that exposed US spy programme

The article gives a summary of the Edward Snowden leaks, which exposed the US government’s surveillance programme that included collecting phone records, tapping fibre-optic cables and bugging EU offices, and how the British government were also involved. At the start of the class, hold a brief discussion about what the students thought about the article. What do they think about the issues raised in the article? Do they agree with what was said? Can they think of any ways they might disagree with the content of the article?

Video activity
To save time in class for the conversation activities, the English teacher can ask the students to watch the video below and answer the listening questions in Section 3 of the lesson plan at home. The questions for the video are styled in a way similar to an exam like the IELTS.

The video for this class is called “Safe and Sorry – Terrorism & Mass Surveillance” by Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell which looks at how anti-terrorism and other laws have been used by governments to increase the surveillance of its citizens.


The focus in the class is on conversation in order to help improve students’ fluency and confidence when speaking in English as well as boosting their vocabulary.

This lesson opens with a short discussion about the article the students read before the class. Next, the students can give their opinion on the quote at the beginning of the lesson plan – what they think the quote means and if they agree with it. This is followed by an initial discussion on the topic including what information the government should be allowed to collect, the people most likely to be targeted by state surveillance, and whether ID cards are an invasion of privacy or necessary in the fight against crime.

After this, students will learn some vocabulary connected with mass surveillance such as facial recognition, bug/wiretap and eavesdrop. This vocabulary has been chosen to boost the students’ knowledge of less common vocabulary that could be useful for preparing for English exams like IELTS or TOEFL. The vocabulary is accompanied by a cloze activity and a speaking activity to test the students’ comprehension of these words.

If the students didn’t watch the video before the class, they can watch it after the vocabulary section and answer the listening questions. Before checking the answers, ask the students to give a brief summary of the video and what they thought about the content.

Finally, there is a more in-depth conversation about mass surveillance. In this speaking activity, students will talk about issues such as countries with a high level of state surveillance, whether anti-terrorism laws are used to justify spying on citizens, and whether we will eventually live in a 1984 world (if we aren’t already).


After the class, students will write about their opinion of mass surveillance. This could be a short paragraph or a longer piece of writing depending on what level the student is at. The writing activity is designed to allow students to practise and improve their grammar with the feedback from their teacher. For students who intend to take an international English exam such as IELTS or TOEFL, there is an alternative essay question to practise their essay-writing skills.


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