26 September 2019

Are we being watched?

Are we being watched?

Yes and we've always been watched! Since the dawn of history those in authority have always tried to control the population and look out for trouble makers. So, mass surveillance of the population on an industrial scale is not something new or something peculiar to our times.

Until the start of the 20th century the most effective means of controlling the population was religion. Indeed, religion has always been the go-to solution to manipulate people. A god or gods do the surveillance from above, nothing new from street cameras or drones watching us today, and our behaviour was then manipulated with the carrot and stick methodology: heaven or hell. The rewards for being good would come during the afterlife when it will be too late to complain. In the 21st century we do not get any rewards for being good.

Today we are more than being watched, our data and information we generate are being collected and analysed and if we're lucky it is only sold to some company who wants to sell us some perfume we don't like. Those who are involved in some kind of political or quasi political activity they are being actively watched. Journalists and antiestablishment activists are furthermore harassed and in some countries experience even a worse fate.

The arguments put forward today, as always, to justify mass surveillance is security and the need to fight criminals and terrorists. Terrorism is always a good excuse for those in power to take more draconian measures to control people. The issue is not whether or not to watch out for criminals and terrorists, but rather, as I shall argue, accountability.

So what are the philosophical issues on being watched? The first must surely be how accountable are those in power when handling our data and information? What are the criteria employed to watch individuals and who supervises those who use and collect this information? And probably the most important of all, are these activities by those in power transparent? Do people have a clear and immediate form of appeal should any information about them and counter activities be wrong or false? Keeping in mind that innocent victims have most to suffer from abuse of power.

Accountability works both ways. Accountability enables society, through their various representatives, to know what those in authority are doing as reasonable and justifiable measures to fight legitimate activities. Accountability requires access to information about what those in power are doing. Today there are many legitimate activities that are justifiable and not only crime and terrorism. One important activity is the flow of traffic and identifying accidents much sooner and more accurately.  So the more accountable the government the more legitimate their activities and type of activities become legitimate and necessary.

However, some governments use legitimate surveillance for political reasons, for example controlling legitimate political protests, spying on the opposition and so on. We can safely assume that the more a government does not want to be held accountable to society the more likely they are up to no good. The issue here is to distinguish between what is legitimate to keep secret and what is a lack of accountability. But this is more of an empirical and maybe legal issue than philosophical.

Accountability cannot happen without transparency and access to legitimate information. Whistleblowers should not be put into a position that endangers their life simply to provide the transparency and information the government are trying to keep secret. But one of the problems governments have today is that they collect so much information that it is not practical to access specific information or data in real time.

While some surveillance is legitimate and necessary, mistakes, especially legitimate mistakes will always happen. In this political subject, therefore, the key ethical issue must surely be the redress private citizens have against false and erroneous accusations and activities of nefarious governments.

Best Lawrence

Late entry:

Clara sent us two links on the subject of surveillance:

Why Google won't protect you from big brother: Christopher Soghoian at TEDxSanJoseCA 2012

Are Security Cameras an Invasion of Privacy

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typos corrected 29-09-2019 apologies.

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