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On the Ethics of Surveillance

posted on 9 November 2013 | posted in Philosophy

Surveillance has been in the news a lot over the last 3 months thanks to Edward Snowden. He's bravely blown the whistle on the NSA, slowly leaking bombshell reports to the media (with more still to come). While the NSA and GCHQ have condemned him as a danger to society (their reasoning being that leaking such secrets just helps terrorists), they haven't really addressed (in public) the claims he's made. Obama has admitted to the PRISM program - essentially stating that Snowden's documents reflect actual reality.

The devil is in the details, and it's become clear that the revelations have shocked most of the public - because his leaks have revealed that it is US - the public - who the NSA and GCHQ seem to be very intent on spying on. All the major platforms such as Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft have either had their systems compromised by the NSA, or they've actually worked WITH the NSA. Gagging orders would suggest certainly the latter is true.

It brings up ethical arguments regarding surveillance. An invasion of privacy is the first charge to make against the watchers. The second charge is that of being deemed suspicious, and requiring surveillance. The government serves me, the tax payer. It's not the job of the government to treat me like a suspect automatically without and reason.

Here's the crux of the issue: surveillance can be a good thing, and it can be a bad thing.

The Good
I like to think that our own tools and services can help individuals prove their doubts about a potentially cheating partner as either true or false. If false, it's a relief to know your partner is being faithful. If true, it's good to have proof even if it's simply for legal reasons.

The Bad
When surveillance is used indiscriminately, it becomes an unnecessary invasion of privacy. People sometimes counterargue this with "if you're doing nothing wrong, you've nothing to worry about". But it's not hard to make a case against any of us, so long as there's enough information on us. Our lives can be summarised in a good or bad light depending on how you skew the information. Such information is not only rife for abuse, it's there for the taking. What if government files were stolen, or even sold to third parties?

In summary, surveillance can be used for ethical and unethical reasons. It isn't in itself inherently good or evil - it depends on the reasons it's being used.

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