The question of ethics and surveillance involves looking at when surveillance should or should not be employed. When is it right to monitor someone, and when is it wrong to do so? Are there any rules or principles that can guide the decision to use surveillance in particular situations? Yet it also goes beyond these questions; the impact that surveillance has on society must also be considered. Two famous literary examples of negative types of surveillance societies are George Orwell’s 1984 and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. To what degree is our society approaching these dystopias, and to what degree is that acceptable in attempting to reduce crime and terrorism? This entry provides an overview of responses to these questions. It starts with the normative issues of principles and guidance for acts of surveillance before looking at more discursive approaches to the impact that surveillance has on society.

Principles and Guidance

Surveillance is a broad and complex activity, and it is questionable whether it is even possible to develop a set of principles to determine which acts of surveillance would be justifiable and which not. Furthermore, some surveillance is clearly consensual (e.g., contestants in the television program Big Brother or a person with limited capacity aided in independent living by surveillance mechanisms allowing a doctor to monitor his or her health from a distance), while other surveillance is not. In the latter category, one may think of investigative surveillance by private investigators, the police, or state intelligence and security organizations, or of surveillance intended to coerce and intimidate, such as Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, a prison that allowed the guards in a central location to view and communicate with every prisoner at any time. It is the ethics of the latter, nonconsensual surveillance that will be the focus of this section.

There is some controversy as to which principles should be included in justifying surveillance. Gary T. Marx has described an ordered set of principles as the “Rosetta Stone” of ethical surveillance, offering in its place a list of 29 questions that should be asked of surveillance, ranging from issues of transparency and public debate to the possibility of physical or psychological harm resulting from the surveillance. David Lyon, on the other hand, has suggested that there are three key areas that should be considered: (1) personhood (the impact surveillance will have on the individual or group surveilled), (2) proportionality, and (3) purpose. Graham Sewell and James Barker draw from Michel Foucault in considering surveillance from the perspective of power and question the cause of the surveillance, the authority for carrying it out, and whether or not it is necessary. John Kleinig, writing with the ethics of police-led surveillance in mind, has argued for a fuller list of principles that incorporates proportionality, necessity, and cause, along with chance of success and a ban on any means of surveillance that might be evil in and of itself. Finally, Kevin Macnish has attempted to draw all of these principles together, arguing that the principles that inform the ethics of war (the “just war” tradition, incorporating principles of just cause, right intention, authority, necessity, chance of success, formal declaration, proportionality, and discrimination) are the same as those that should inform the ethics of surveillance.

Proportionality is a principle widely acknowledged but rarely discussed in detail. It essentially aims to strike a balance between the harms that arise from surveillance and the end to which that surveillance is aimed (i.e., meeting the cause). However, there is a paucity of evidence as to precisely what are the harms of surveillance. The violation of privacy is an obvious harm, but this may not be a harm when the surveillance is of activity in a public space. Chilling effects—the deterrence from engaging in democratically legitimate activities (e.g., demonstrations) for fear of reprisals from the state—are another harm, but they very difficult to prove. Diminished social trust not only may be a harm but is also one that is difficult to establish.

The principle of necessity is seen as the meeting of two conditions: (1) that there is no alternative means of achieving a particular goal or (2) that if there are alternative means, then these are more harmful than the particular means in question. The inclusion of harm as a measure in necessity explains why there is sometimes seen to be an intersection of this principle with that of proportionality. Hence, a wiretap on the home phone of a suspected shoplifter in the hope of hearing that shoplifter confess to her crimes would seem to be unnecessary (closed-circuit television would be less harmful and just as, if not more, effective) and disproportionate (the harms outweigh the benefits of identifying a shoplifter).

The question as to who is carrying out the surveillance is ethically relevant, but it is not always clear as to who the authority should be. Consider the example of a citizen witnessing a bank robbery who watches the thieves closely for identification and then follows them out of the bank. In what manner does this citizen have authority? At the same time, it is generally expected that the state needs to gain authority to interfere with the private lives of its citizens, requiring a warrant to enter their homes or read their correspondence.

Hence, there are a number of principles that have been suggested as morally relevant to assessing surveillance. While there is no agreement as to precisely which principles are relevant, this entry has described four that are widely held by those writing in the field.

Surveillance and Society

Ethical questions about surveillance do not stop with the question of when particular acts of surveillance are justifiable. Many writing in the field ask questions about the impact that surveillance is having on a society and the shape that society will take in a situation of near-ubiquitous surveillance. While ethical questions are often not addressed explicitly in these writings, there is usually an ethical subtext that is rarely far from the surface.

In this tradition, David Lyon has written on the impact of surveillance as a means of social sorting, separating groups in society from one another and often reinforcing existing social stereotypes and divides. Clive Norris and Gary Armstrong have written about the relationship between closed-circuit television operators and the police, noting that the interaction is not always predictable or obviously justifiable, as operators choose to report events that are not relevant to criminal activity while ignoring others that clearly are. Kirstie Ball has written on the relationship between workers and employers when the former are subjected to surveillance, including considerations as to how workers choose to resist such surveillance. Finally, Eric Stoddart has contributed by drawing on a feminist ethics of care, noting that surveillance can and should be used for the benefit of society in particular cases and that when it cannot be used in such a way, it should be treated with caution.

Kevin Macnish

See also Bentham, Jeremy ; Foucault, Michel ; Marx, Gary T. ; Orwell, George ; Panopticon, The ; Privacy ; Social Sorting

Further Readings

Ball, Kirstie S. “Situating Workplace Surveillance: Ethics and Computer Based Performance Monitoring.” Ethics and Information Technology, v.3 (2001).

Bentham, J.The Panopticon Writings. New York, NY: Verso Books, 1995.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New ed.). Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1991.

Kleinig, John. “The Ethical Perils of Knowledge Acquisition.” Criminal Justice Ethics, v.28 (2009).

Lyon, David. “Facing the Future: Seeking Ethics for Everyday Surveillance.” Ethics and Information Technology, v.3 (2001).

Lyon, David. Surveillance as Social Sorting: Privacy, Risk and Automated Discrimination. New York, NY: Routledge, 2002.

Macnish, Kevin. “Just Surveillance? Towards a Normative Theory of Surveillance.” Surveillance & Socitey, v.12 (2014).

Marx, Gary T. “Ethics for the New Surveillance.” The Information Society, v.14 (1998).

Norris, Clive and Gary Armstrong. The Maximum Surveillance Society: The Rise of CCTV (1st ed.). Oxford, England: Berg, 1999.

Ryberg, Jesper. “Privacy Rights, Crime Prevention, CCTV, and the Life of Mrs Aremac.” Res Publica, v.13 (2007).

Sewell, Graham and James R. Barker. “Neither Good, nor Bad, but Dangerous: Surveillance as an Ethical Paradox.” Ethics and Information Technology, v.3 (2001).

Stoddart, Eric. Theological Perspectives on a Surveillance Society. Farnham, England: Ashgate, 2011.