Surveillance technology: The moral impact


CCTV monitoring of the public is useful in certain circumstances, such as the case cited above. Indeed, many criminals have been identified by cameras and brought to justice. Those who wish to see all cameras removed from public spaces often cite their right to privacy as the reason. This is an understandable stance. After all, you’re just walking along the road, why should some cop in a darkened room somewhere else in town have the right to spy on you? Well, because it works both ways. The EU and US both have laws protecting the rights of the public to film or take still pictures of anyone or anything, provided they are on public land and not trespassing. These laws are somewhat shaky in places but are holding true for now. If the anti-surveillance protestors won the right to not be filmed in public, the reverse would logically follow. This would mean that the public had no right to film police or buildings without a permit. The genie is out of the bottle on this one, and there are no easy answers.

surveillance technologyThe argument about having nothing to hide is also something of a contentious issue when it comes to surveillance technology. This is the point where we step into the murky world of state surveillance, such as famously contested by the hero/traitor Edward Snowden. This is probably the closest we’ll get to a real Big Brother situation for a while but the sheer size and ambition of certain governments to monitor our data should be setting alarm bells ringing, if only for reasons of personal privacy. Yes, I’m aware it contradicts what I mentioned above about CCTV but bear with me.

Buried deep in the Utah desert in the US, there’s a $1.5 billion installation that sucks in a huge amount of data from the internet. The word ‘internet’ is a key one in this conversation because it’s not just data from the US they’re monitoring. Americans, in fact, have some of the most stringent freedoms from snooping in the world – at least, they do on paper. Laws passed following Watergate and the disclosure of J. Edgar Hoover’s rigorous spying on ‘Communists’, mean that permission to spy on anyone needs to be sought from a judge.

The internet blurs all the lines of data privacy by being a global architecture. That and the provisions of the Patriot Act of 2001, following the attacks on September 11, work in unison to give the US government tacit reason to spy on whomever they like. The very fact that nobody has given them permission to do it is only outweighed by the fact there’s not one government prepared to challenge them on it. I’m going to leave my tinfoil hat in the wardrobe, but do they really need all these data to prevent terrorism? And if so, why hasn’t it worked? The problem is, we don’t know.

You could probably put your hand on your heart now and say, “I have nothing to hide”. This is fine and I’m sure a lot of you will continue to be model citizens. Let’s just say that your hobby is collecting train numbers (some people do) and overnight, it becomes illegal – let’s say it’s for alleged national security reasons. Your name is probably now associated with several now-illegal groups. Do you give up the hobby you love, or continue illegally? You’re one law away from being a criminal and suddenly you could be the one with a dirty secret.

Journalist and hacker Jacob Applebaum has a good challenge for anyone using the ‘nothing to hide’ argument: “Hand me your unlocked phone and pull down your pants”.