Is Surveillance Ethical

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The concept of surveillance involves close monitoring of behavior of people in a certain location of importance. Surveillance has many media of propagation. It involves audio, video and even the sense of smell. Examples of video surveillance are CCTV cameras (Closed Circuit Tele Vision cameras) at areas of commercial importance such as banks, schools, courts. Audio surveillance involves tapping phone calls to listen to conversations. Surveillance through smell is when dogs are used to detect the smell of narcotics and explosives from a certain distance.

The ethical aspect of surveillance questions how surveillance is being used and whether it is morally and ethically permitted. It involves questioning certain aspects like the circumstances of its usage, when is it permissible? When is it not at all entertained. What are its benefits and its harms. This paper starts off with a brief backdrop into history about how the concept of surveillance originated. The focus of this paper is towards the stand that surveillance is unethical in the modern world. This paper speaks about the stakeholders of surveillance, the motive behind it and its impact on the society.


One of the first few references we can see about surveillance is the Panopticon. The Panopticon was to be a prison, comprising a circular building with the cells adjacent to the outside walls. In the centre was a tower in which the prison supervisor would live and monitor the inmates. Large external windows and smaller internal windows in each cell would allow the supervisor to monitor the activities of the inmates, while a system of louvres in the central tower would prevent the inmates from seeing the supervisor. A rudimentary form of directed loudspeaker would enable the supervisor to communicate with the prisoners(Macnish 2009). Bentham argued that even though the inmates didn't know when they were being watched, they would be in the constant fear of being spotted of wrongdoing and they would be disciplined.

There were many versions of Panopticon adopted in the later years and it was a widespread popular idea.

The Central Idea Behind Surveillance:

"If you haven't done anything wrong, you have nothing to fear"(Wu, Chung, Yamat, Richman 2013). This is the argument supporting the government's actions of spying and eavesdropping on people from wherever they have remote access to under the mask of surveillance. Thus, the government's use of closed-circuit television cameras in public spaces, warrantless wiretapping, and library record checks have the potential to save lives from criminals and terrorists with only minimal invasion of its citizens' privacy.

This argument fails on many grounds. To begin with, when collecting personal data and information about the identity of a person, an archive of information is created which makes them vulnerable when fallen into the wrong hands. When data is collected, whether such data remains used for its stated purpose after its collection has been called into question. A classic example of unauthorized collection of data is wikileaks. Wikileaks claims to have a database of ten million documents in ten years since its inception in 2006. It contains sensitive information and classified media from anonymous sources. It is a horrible idea to think about when anything as classified as the information held by Interpol or any such global organization on criminals, victims etc., is suddenly a few fingertips away from being revealed, what would be the case if a common man's financial details is in the wrong hands the same way? It is a critical question to think about.

Ethical Concerns:

A. Privacy

The above example shows us that privacy is one of the main concerns that make us question about the ethical strength of surveillance. We may appear in public safe in the knowledge that our weaknesses are not on display for all to see, allowing for confident personal interaction. When we vote we do so in the belief that no-one can see our decision and treat us well or poorly in the light of how we voted. Privacy is thus important in the social context of democracy. In many cases we do not want to know everything about everyone around us and so privacy can protect the rest of us from being exposed to too much information.

The 21st century has become the century of Big Data and advanced Information Technology allows for the storage and processing of exabytes of data. The revelations of Edward Snowden have demonstrated that these worries are real and that the technical capabilities to collect, store and search large quantities of data concerning telephone conversations, internet searches and electronic payment are now in place and are routinely used by government agencies. For business firms, personal data about customers and potential customers are now also a key asset. At the same time, the meaning and value of privacy remains the subject of considerable controversy (Hoven, Jeroen, Blaauw, Martijn, Pieters, Wolter and Warnier, Martijn, 2014). As the excerpt states, we can see that privacy has a major threat to everyone.

B. Trust

Another ethical issue loosely tailing privacy is trust. Surveillance also limits the opportunity to present oneself in the manner of one's own choosing. It is hence limiting on the individual's autonomy, impacting how that individual interacts with the world. While Bentham believed the Panopticon would encourage inmates to self-discipline, this would only occur through fear of repercussions. The inmates would be denied the opportunity to demonstrate willingness to reform without the surveillance. There would therefore be no opportunities for the supervisor of the prison to place his trust in the prisoner, nor for that prisoner to demonstrate his trustworthiness other than in the presence of surveillance. Any traits displayed would then arguably not be genuine reflections of the character of the inmate. The same is true of surveillance in the workplace, schools and society at large. If the surveilled is suspicious of or conscious of the surveillance then they might conform to the expected norm, but this will not necessarily reflect their character"(Macnish 2009). When a person is being surveilled, the reasons to trust him or her just keeps diminishing. The constant fear of being watched makes the person's actions more predictable.


To sum up, there are many ethical concerns involving the ethical aspect of surveillance, but the main concerns involve maintaining the privacy and security of the individual. However, it has been proven that the government and other major organizations handling sensitive information do not give much importance to the safety of data and there is always the threat of intrusion into anyone's lives which is the foremost and a cruel repercussion of being surveilled thereby decreasing the trust of individuals among one another with the fear of being monitored constantly.

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Is Surveillance Ethical. (2019, Dec 10). Retrieved November 28, 2023 , from

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