Technological developments and a heightened fear of terrorism has resulted in the rapid expansion of surveillance in the last 15 years, to the extent that critics now describe the UK as a ‘surveillance state’. John Guelke outlines the philosophical debates around surveillance ethics and argues that privacy is being eroded not just by the state but by our own individual choices as well.
Due to a combination of the September 11th attacks and the rapid development of ICT across the last 15 years the issues of surveillance and privacy have rightly become topics of enormous interest, with claims that new technologies and practices have resulted in a ‘surveillance state’ or ‘surveillance society’ in modern Britain. In the Interdisciplinary Ethics Group at the University of Warwick, while often working with technologists, legal theorists and police, we approach these questions with philosophical methods.
Much social scientific study exists on CCTV, but rather less philosophical work. A notable exception is a paper by Jesper Ryberg which deploys the compelling metaphor of an elderly and infirm lady called Mrs Aremac, sat at her window, watching the comings and goings in the street below to alleviate her boredom and isolation but otherwise taking no part in what takes place outside. If Mrs. Aremac violates nobody’s right to privacy, then how can we justify the claim that public CCTV is unacceptably intrusive. This is a common philosophical move – imagine a relevantly identical case where we do have clear moral intuitions to illuminate a case where we do not. I think this is a good starting point for normative arguments about surveillance, and that if you want to argue that there is something seriously wrong with CCTV in public places you either have to accept that there is something much worse about curtain twitchers than we generally think, or you have to show why it’s nothing like being watched by old Mrs. Aremac.
Anabelle Lever goes for the second of these alternatives in her response. Here she points out that little old ladies don’t have the resources of the state at their command. Little old ladies like Mrs. Aremac can’t send armed men to your door, they can’t arrest you and they can’t deprive you of your liberty. This is a reasonable point, and one which seriously engages with Ryberg’s argument. However, note that Lever’s argument is not really about privacy. Rather it is about justice, or protection from police power, and democratic restraint of the powers of law enforcement. And the argument may imply that CCTV is more objectionable the more authoritarian a country is and less objectionable the more liberal democratic it is. Ryberg’s argument still teases out how weak and compromised our entitlement to privacy in public in space truly is. Furthermore, given the number of monitors the average CCTV viewer is required to watch over, the poor quality of much of the footage and the fact that much CCTV is not being watched live at all, it is questionable to ask whether the privacy infringement even rises to the level of a Mrs. Aremac.
Far more understandable is outrage at the NSA mass internet monitoring programme revealed by the Guardian last year. The privacy of our communications is so much more important than the weak norms against watching people in public space. However, as with the case of CCTV it is not accurate to say that ‘we’re being watched’ or ‘our emails are being read’. The chances of having one’s email read might be even lower than being ‘watched’ on a CCTV feed. Data mining searches for the use of particular keywords and other algorithms are used to identify which emails ought to be subject to greater scrutiny. The criteria for which emails may be subjected to further scrutiny may be criticised for being discriminatory, or just plain unreliable. However, I’m interested in asking in what way this programme counts as an invasion of privacy. Although the chances of having one’s email read by anyone as a result of this programme may be low, the value of private communications don’t just depend on not having your emails read but a third party, but on having confidence that one’s communications will be read by no one but the intended recipient.
One of the features of the internet surveillance programme to attract particular attention has been the alleged cooperation of technology companies. Regardless of just how complicit technology companies have actually been in government surveillance, social networking technologies are an important feature of modern pressures on privacy in their own right – far more significant than CCTV in my view. And this is not primarily because they are a rich source of intelligence for state surveillance – though of course they are – but because people use them to voluntarily expose so much more of their life to public view than was the case in the past. That is, both more in terms of breadth (sharing everyday banal matters such that none of one’s daily life need be lived in true solitude) and in terms of depth (think of the truly intimate matters people post on blogs or social media for practically anyone to see). Matters which you would never hear discussed out loud in a real world public arena are now online and I think this development belongs in the discussion of surveillance.
Darren Ellis previously blogged here about his psychological studies on people’s lived experience of surveillance, and many just aren’t bothered. The same is surely true of this kind of ‘self surveillance’. It is possible to argue that people who blithely accept this level of exposure are just misinformed – they don’t realise just how accessible that controversial Facebook group they joined is, or how swiftly their unreflective tweet can be spread around the world. One might also want to lay this misinformation at the door of the companies making the technology, for making it needlessly difficult to maintain one’s privacy, with confusing privacy settings, or privacy settings that can change without the user realising.
However, the more interesting question is whether people who are genuinely comfortable living their life very openly, ought to be so. This is difficult, as there are clearly benefits to a more open society, and I hold no nostalgia for a more conservative time when, for example, any discussion of sex was taboo. Nevertheless, Anita Allen lists some reasons to criticise over sharing in terms of the virtue of self-respect. I also think we can point to considerations about the kind of society we want to live in. Privacy is a public good, like a public park. It obtains space free from scrutiny and interference enabling us to think, read and associate as we please without social pressure. Understood this way we can see that it is fundamentally important to moral and political autonomy. But its existence relies on norms of behaviour, like principles of free speech. Collectively, every time we behave as if privacy doesn’t matter, we encourage the same behaviour by others, and put pressure on others to share with the same breadth and depth. Law has a key role to play, but you can’t pass a law to make people care about privacy. Privacy isn’t just threatened by the state but by our own individual choices as well.
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About the Author
Dr. John Guelke is a research fellow at Warwick University, currently working on the FP7 SURVEILLE project, assisting Prof Tom Sorell in the establishment and running of the SURVEILLE Advisory Service and carrying out surveys of surveillance technology in conjunction with Merseyside Police. He was previously a research fellow on the FP7 DETECTER project where he has worked on detection technologies and the ethical norms of counter terrorism.