The Ethics of Surveillance
eBook - ePub

The Ethics of Surveillance

An Introduction

Kevin Macnish

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eBook - ePub

The Ethics of Surveillance

An Introduction

Kevin Macnish

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About This Book

The Ethics of Surveillance: An Introduction systematically and comprehensively examines the ethical issues surrounding the concept of surveillance. Addressing important questions such as:

  • Is it ever acceptable to spy on one's allies?
  • To what degree should the state be able to intrude into its citizens' private lives in the name of security?
  • Can corporate espionage ever be justified?
  • What are the ethical issues surrounding big data?
  • How far should a journalist go in pursuing information?
  • Is it reasonable to expect a degree of privacy in public?
  • Is it ever justifiable for a parent to read a child's diary?

Featuring case studies throughout, this textbook provides a philosophical introduction to an incredibly topical issue studied by students within the fields of applied ethics, ethics of technology, privacy, security studies, politics, journalism and human geography.

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Publisher
Routledge
Year
2017
ISBN
9781351669474
Part I
Introducing the Ethics of Surveillance
1History of Thought on Surveillance and the Ethics of Surveillance
Introduction
In this chapter, we lay the context for the philosophical discussion that is to follow. We start by considering definitions of surveillance, in order to be clear on precisely what it is we are discussing. From there, we move to a discussion about the history of thought on surveillance from pre-history to the present. This is inevitably extremely abridged, but allows for certain trends in developments of surveillance to emerge, as well as to highlight the way in which surveillance was generally seen prior to the late twentieth century. We then look at more direct writings on the ethics of surveillance, taking in the writings of Foucault, Deleuze, Lyon and Marx. Lastly, we look at a number of laws in the UK and the US that have had an impact on the development of surveillance in the twentieth century. The chapter closes with an acknowledgement that this work takes a particular ethical stance, and offers the reader some suggestions for reading about alternative, non-Western perspectives.
Defining Surveillance
The word “surveillance” in English derives from the French surveiller, meaning to watch over or monitor (veiller being the verb “to stay awake” or “to be watchful”, and sur the preposition “on” or “over”). The verb veiller derives from the Latin vigilare, translating into English as “to watch”. Hence, the word “surveillance” carries with it a sense of watching over someone or something.1 However, the meaning of words often changes and picks up nuance with time that may not be captured in a simple etymology. A number of alternative definitions for surveillance have been suggested in recent years, in an attempt to highlight some of these nuances.
A good starting definition has been proposed by David Lyon, a central figure in contemporary surveillance studies, that surveillance is “any collection and processing of personal data, whether identifiable or not, for the purposes of influencing or managing those whose data have been garnered”.2 This is helpful in that it goes beyond watching, to include the collecting of data, and notes that the collection will have a purpose. However, these aspects aside, it is too focused for a general understanding of surveillance. What should we say, for instance, of an act of monitoring that is carried out for purposes other than influencing or managing? Or of acts of voyeurism through which no data is collected, but which we would choose normally to call surveillance nonetheless?3
A more recent definition was proposed in a 2006 report for the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) by the Surveillance Studies Network. This noted that, “where we find purposeful, routine, systematic and focused attention paid to personal details, for the sake of control, entitlement, management, influence or protection, we are looking at surveillance”.4
This definition keeps Lyon’s reference to purpose, and of those purposes being influence and management (adding control, entitlement and protection to the list), while introducing the notions of surveillance being routine, systematic and focused. These can help broaden our understanding of what may be involved in surveillance, but again prove ultimately to be unsatisfactory. The definition again raises the questions of whether an act is not surveillance if it lacks any of these aspects. That is, if an act involves monitoring a person in a way that is not routine but an isolated incident, or if it is random rather than focused or systematic, does that mean that the act is not surveillance? Furthermore, what of acts of monitoring people which are not for the sake of control, entitlement, management, influence or protection? Are these then not acts of surveillance?
This is not to be dismissive of either of these definitions. Lyon’s was an early attempt to capture something of the burgeoning forms of surveillance happening in the late twentieth century through increasing digitization, while the ICO report was written for a particular purpose other than the general grounding of an understanding of surveillance. Furthermore, the latter is not an attempt at a strict definition. The authors are correct to say that when we find these activities, we find surveillance. The point is simply that surveillance can also be found elsewhere.
Defining surveillance is therefore not a straightforward task, and yet, as the authors of the ICO report note, it is important.5 For the purposes of this book, then, we will take as broad an understanding of surveillance as possible. We shall treat surveillance as simply the sustained monitoring of a person or people. It is sustained in that it goes beyond a casual glance, or overheard snippet of conversation. It is monitoring in that it involves paying attention to an entity. Given that we are concerned with ethics, and ethics generally deals with people and how people are treated, we will here limit ourselves to surveillance of people. Of course, surveillance can be of other entities (the tides, tectonic plates, or animals, for example), and ethics may extend to cover at least some of these entities (such as the treatment of animals and the environment). However, we are not concerned here with the ethics of surveillance of non-human entities. This definition frees our thinking from surveillance being restricted to that which occurs only for one of a specific number of purposes. As shorthand for this definition, we will treat the terms “surveillance” and “monitoring” as interchangeable, with the proviso that it is understood that the monitoring is sustained, and of a person or people.
As noted above, the etymology of surveillance implies that it involves a watching over. Some have taken this to mean that surveillance is that carried out by those in power over those not in power. To capture this, they contrast surveillance (watching over) with sousveillance (watching from underneath).6 This highlights an interesting aspect of surveillance and its relationship to power, which we will discuss in Chapter 3. However, it also limits the discussion of the ethics of surveillance if by the term we are simply talking about the empowered monitoring the unempowered. What of the ethics of sousveillance? Or, as some may take to be the case, should we assume that when the unempowered monitor the empowered, this is always justified? This latter suggestion seems clearly wrong: the monitoring of politicians by the popular press may, for instance, be seen as an aspect of sousveillance, but one which may be unhelpfully intrusive and unhelpful for democracy.7 Imagine, for instance, that a politician is about to hold the government to account for a particular action and is brought down before he can do so by a sex scandal, the plot for the film Defence of the Realm.8 In this case, the government is able to avoid transparency as a result of the sex scandal, itself of minor interest to the democratic functioning of a state.
A second term that has been introduced in recent years is dataveillance.9 This is useful to highlight that surveillance need not be a straightforward matter of watching a person as they go about their daily business. Instead, it may involve monitoring that person’s data to gain similar information, as Lyon’s definition suggested. Indeed, some scholars have raised the notion of a “data double”, a virtual replica of the individual carried in data that can be monitored remotely without the individual themselves ever being seen directly.
While dataveillance is helpful in these terms, it is a subset of surveillance and not to be taken as a logical alternative to it. That is, there is not dataveillance and (non-data) surveillance. As such, we include the monitoring of data pertaining to a person or people in our definition of surveillance.
History
The Ancient World
Spying has been called the “second oldest profession”,10 indicating that surveillance, one aspect of espionage, is at least this old. We find discussions of surveillance, and implications as to the ethics of surveillance, in the opening chapters of Genesis in the Bible, as Cain responds to God’s question regarding the whereabouts of Abel, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”11 In saying this, Cain implies that he has no responsibility to maintain a watching eye over his brother.
John L. Locke, in his book Eavesdropping: An Intimate History, traces the beginnings of surveillance and an understanding of privacy to some of the earliest human habitations.12 In particular, he notes that groups of hunter-gatherer homo sapiens living 11–15,000 years ago began to settle into domestic settings, ending their hitherto nomadic and largely open lifestyles, and creating more fixed dwellings. These dwellings introduced walls to human society for the first time, and with that a sense of separation from the rest of the group.13 He gives the reasons for this settling as a combination of a dissipation of animal herds leading to declining stocks and an increase in agrarian farming; population growth increasing competition for stocks and requiring more food; and global warming stimulating better production of vegetation, making farming more productive.14 What is particularly interesting about this account is both the relevance of architecture to surveillance (in this case, walls limiting the opportunities for surveillance), and an increase in population having an impact on surveillance. We will see that both of these continue to play a role in the development of surveillance, and the ways in which people think about the ethics of surveillance, throughout history.
Early fixed societies moved from simple dwelling structures to living in towns, which were surrounded by walls, often with towers. Again, we can see this in the Old Testament, with references to walled cities in Leviticus15 from approximately 1400 BCE, and the destruction of the walls of Jericho from the same period.16 While there is no record of watchers on the walls of Jericho, there is on the walls of Jerusalem, when 2 Samuel 18:24 records that “while [King] David was sitting between the inner and outer gates, the watchman went up to the ...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Half-Title
  3. Series
  4. Title
  5. Copyright
  6. Contents
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. Introduction
  9. PART I Introducing the Ethics of Surveillance
  10. PART II Applied Contexts
  11. Index