Electronic surveillance has become part of our everyday life for quite some time by now.
When we make a call to most service companies or organizations, we almost always hear the computer voice:” For…reason, this phone call is monitored…”. When we go to work, turn on the computer, it says on the screen:” …your activity is monitored…”. Everywhere we look, we found surveillance cameras, on the street, in the mall, at school… We found them in the United States as well as most of the other countries in the whole world.
Over ABC news, one day I heard about the humming bird the US military was developing to help the troops in the field. It is remote controlled, looks and flies like a humming bird, with a camera on it. I’ve never been too worried about the privacy issue until I see this little bird flying around. It’s so small, it has the ability to go basically everywhere. If it’s used in the military, who can say it’s never going to be used by general public? If everybody can buy one, is it possible for somebody to buy one as a toy and fly it around the park? Or how about a kid flying it around the apartment building or the neighborhood? Will we need to get rid of all the windows of our houses to have some privacy?
The news keep reporting a lot of cases in which the criminals were caught because of the use of electronic surveillance. Whenever this happens, most people might think it’s really a good thing. It is definitely good if video cameras only catch bad guys, but that’s never going to be possible, it either catch’s everything or nothing at all. Watching the crimes being committed on a video would sure brings definite evidences the same as hearing the criminals talk about their crimes on the phone. In court, electronic surveillance has been very successful. But as communications advance, the surveillance techniques has became more and more intrusive to privacy. One has to agree that electronic surveillance does play an important role in criminal investigation in this information era, but we also can’t deny the fact that it’s very intrusive and it’s even becoming more and more intrusive because of the advancing technology.
Now, we’ve reached a ethical dilemma here. First of all, electronic surveillance is helpful in law enforcement. Definitely no doubt at all. In fact, law enforcement agents requests lots and lots of information from all sorts of organizations, from wiretaps, surveillance cameras, to cell phone locations and e-mails. The most familiar one we all know is whenever there is car stolen, robbery broken in, or anything, surveillance cameras films are pulled out to the light to identify criminals. Some of the things we might not know as much: in 2006 alone, AOL received about one thousand request from the law enforcement on a monthly basis; in 2009, the website Face book received more than ten request daily; some cell phone companies even have websites, so the police can use the data from it freely. Overall, thousands of electronic surveillance are ordered every year by the law enforcement. Or we might even say, for solving almost every crime, there is some type of electronic surveillance used. On the other hand, privacy concern is getting more and more of an issue. When the very early type of surveillance was used, like wiretaps, they are only conducted on people who are suspected of some sort of crime, not on regular legitimately behaved citizens. But after surveillance cameras came into play, everything, everybody is monitored, legitimate or not, guilty or not, people are all watched all the time in work place, on the street or most public places. Luckily, we still have our privacy left in our own home if we want. But if later on, the little humming bird come into life, we might as well lose that, by then, there would be barely any privacy left if any at all.
Then what shall we do as a society? Should we keep current surveillance, or even add lots more to make the world a safer place to live? Or should we get rid of all the surveillance, and all the advance technology and go back to what we had during the very early days? Or do we want to use the surveillance and at the same time protect privacy as much as possible? How do we approach that?
Analyzing by the use of ethical theories
First of all, lets see what Kant would say about this situation. Kant’s Categorical Imperative (First Formula) says:” to act only from the moral rules that you can at the same time will to be universal moral laws”. We might put the moral rule this way:” it is okay for the law enforcement to use electronic surveillance.” Now, in order to evaluate this morale rule, we try to put it into a universal rule. ” Law enforcement can use electronic surveillance whenever they want.” Since surveillance works very well, if the court accepts any evidence from electronic surveillance, and law enforcement is allowed to put surveillance over anybody at any place any time, we might find surveillance cameras everywhere, maybe even in our bedrooms or bathrooms. Thus, by then, people would have no expect about privacy anymore. Under such circumstances, people who want to conduct criminal activities won’t be doing it under public light, or anywhere that electronic surveillance can reach, they might be doing it in underground tunnels or under the water, or they might invent some type of shield or clothes such that the cameras won’t go through, or whatever way that’s possible. Of course they won’t be using phone calls, or e-mails or any other electronic communication methods. They might be using pigeons or bugs or whatever works to send messages. So, by then, all the surveillance we have won’t be useful any more, thus the idea that surveillance will help fight crimes, catch criminals won’t be true any more. So we conclude it would reach contradictory when we try to universal the rule.
Then, Kant’s Second Formulation of Categorical Imperative points out it is wrong for one person to “use” another person. When the law enforcement use wiretap on a suspect, Kant would probably say it’s okay. But for the cases of surveillance cameras and other surveillance which targets all the people in general, the law enforcement are using the legitimate people trying to find out who the criminals are. Those people who are lawful citizens should not be treated as means to an end. So it is wrong for law enforcement to watch over everybody trying to find the bad guys.
Act utilitarian uses the Principle of Utility to just moral issues, it believes an action is right if it increases the total happiness of all the affected parties, and an action is wrong if it decreases the total happiness of the affected parties.
Let’s say law enforcement is using surveillance cameras in neighborhood parks in order to detect possible criminal activities. Now, let’s try to determine all the affected parties and the change of their happiness. First of all, the camera is there to watch over the park, so the police department don’t need as many patrols out there, that would save them some money. Also, cameras are on twenty-four hours a day, and it shows absolute evidence, people can watch it, replay it, it most likely will even work better than if a patrol is there in person. The camera might help to keep the criminals away, make it a better neighborhood to live in, thus everybody in the neighborhood will benefit. On the other hand, people who lives around the park, maybe going there quite a few times a day, and don’t feel like being watched all the time, so they might chose not to go to the park at all. Especially, people who live right by the park might worry the cameras could possibly see what they’re doing in their house, that might cause them great discomfort. They might even move away from the park to free themselves.
In this case we need to decide which side weights more, if there is barely anybody living around the park, and there are a lot of criminal activities going on over there, utilitarianism might say it’s better to have some surveillance cameras there. But for the places where many people live around with very rarely any criminal activities happen, it might not be such a good idea to put surveillance cameras there. The only problems here is, most likely, where there are more people, there are more crimes happening. Rational people would agree not much crimes are happening deep in the forest. So the issue becomes, the places where surveillance cameras are most in need are places where there are more people, but at the same time, that’s the place where we would appreciate not having the cameras.
Rule utilitarianism holds that we should use those moral rules which, if followed by everyone, will lead to the greatest increase in total happiness. Now lets look at the same universal moral rule as we used for Kant:” Law enforcement can use electronic surveillance whenever they want.” If law enforcement can use whatever surveillance they want and it holds up in court, they would not hesitate to use it, since that would make them break into the criminal cases way easier. Thus we might came upon such scenario: everybody is required to wear a cap with a camera on it, or a pair of earrings with tiny cameras on the bottom, so the law enforcement can watch over all our activities, thus nothing will go hidden, no criminal activities will go without being find out. Then we will be living in an absolute transparent world. How about if the technology advance so much, people might invent something that could tell if people are thinking evil, if such detection chip is planted in everyone’s head, then, surely, there wouldn’t be any crimes happening at all. If there is no crimes on the world, all the legitimate citizens would definitely benefit. Also, if there is no crimes, we probably don’t even need the entire justice branch of the country, or any attorneys, or weapons or such, that’s going to be a great big save. If there is no crime, everybody will have lot less to worry about everyday, it should be way easier for people to stay happy.
The first negative consequence of such an universal adoption of electronic surveillance is that it’s going to cost the taxpayers a lot of money to have all the cameras installed, all the special software or device designed and produced to put into use. Also, a lot of law enforcement personals would be needed to monitor all these many people in the country. What’s the ratio of law enforcement to citizen? One to five? Ten? That’s a question.
The most harmful consequence of massive electronic surveillance would be the unhappiness caused to people by having very little privacy. We’re born to love freedom, nobody love to be watched all the time. If people are not happy living in this country, they’ll go somewhere else where freedom and privacy is valued more. Thus, US as a nation, will be downgraded, less and less people will want to come and work here, our own best elites will definitely seek opportunities elsewhere, the whole country and everyone inside would be worse off.
In conclusion, the possible harm caused by adopting the universal moral rule seems to exceed the possible benefits. So the rule utilitarianism would probably say using electronic surveillance for law enforcement is wrong.
Social Contract Theory
Social contract theory states that it is morally right for one person to act according to a moral rule that is accepted by rational people because of the mutual benefits of adopting such a rule, given others follow the rules as well.
To apply social contract theory, we identify the rational agents and their rights. The morality of the action of the law enforcement depends on whether the privacy rights of the people is violated. Most of us would agree having privacy is one way the society gives to rational adults on the account that they will be responsible for whatever they do. We don’t give much privacy to babies or toddlers, because mostly they don’t know what they are doing, and they need somebody to watch over them, also we generally don’t hold them responsible for what they do. We as adults, take care of them, and are responsible for their behaviors. If we’re being watched over like babies, would that imply we don’t know what we’re doing, and need some supervision
all the time? If that’s the case, how can the law enforcement know what they are doing, on what ground can they have the right and ability to watch our the rest of the world? Should they themselves be watched over at the same time? On the other hand, if we’re treated like babies, we shouldn’t be responsible for what we do. Some might argue we don’t have rights to privacy the same way as we have right to life and to our own property. But we mostly would agree, giving people some privacy have many benefits. Privacy gives people the opportunity to do what they please, to be themselves, to grow in their own unique way.
Generally speaking, people expect privacy when they are in their private places, such as bedrooms; people expect certain things to be private such as how much money they have in the bank; or what they said to their girlfriend or boyfriend or such. Privacy is valued in our society, a rational people would agree, having some privacy is good to everybody because nobody wants to live under a camera and have other people watch how many times they went to bathrooms or even how many scars are over their bodies.
In conclusion, according to social contract theory, it is wrong for law enforcement to use electronic surveillance because it violates the privacy of the general public.
Consequences if electronic surveillance is not allowed
Now, look at the other side of the issue. What would happen if electronic surveillance is not allowed at all? Of course we would have our privacy back, people will be living a happier life being able to do what they please without being watched.
But what about law enforcement? Will we be able to capture any criminals? We’re better off than our ancestors in many ways, such as, we have better clothes, better food, better education and so on. But the world is also getting more and more dangerous, all the newest technology, the advance in education also made it possible for some criminals to do huge damage to the society. If electronic surveillance aren’t allowed in court, will we be able to catch those people and put them in jail? The chances might be very low. If criminals figure out the law enforcement can’t reach them, most likely they’ll do a lot more damage, if people know they can’t be caught for the bad things they do, most likely they’ll keep doing it, and other people who use to be legitimate person might even find out stealing from other people is way easier than working hard to gain something, if lots of other people are doing it, why can’t they? Computers are used by almost everybody here in US, people conduct crimes on computers, some might sell illegal things on the web, some might sent viruses to destroy other people’s computer, all sorts of bad things could happen, thus it is becoming increasing important that the law enforcement can stay on top of the technology and keep the criminal activities under control.
If there are all legitimate people on the world, then we sure don’t need any surveillance, we can have all our privacy. But that’s not the case, then, some type of surveillance will be needed to watch over those who are trying to damage the society.
Decision and Implementation
From the point of view of Kant, act utilitarianism, rule utilitarianism, and social contract theory, we have all concluded it is wrong for the law enforcement to use electronic surveillance for law enforcement. But on the other hand, because of the advancing in technology and education, criminals these days are becoming very good at covering what they do, so surveillance is needed in lots of ways to protect the general public from the harm the criminals might cause, and it is important for law enforcement to have some electronic surveillance, so they can effectively catch those criminals and give the punish they deserve, thus people will be living in a much more safer environment.
Now we realize we all want as much privacy as possible, but we also want to live in a safe place where criminals are punished for the bad things they do, thus electronic surveillance becomes something we don’t like, but we got to have some. That happens a lot in life, suppose somebody might don’t like vegetables at all, but because of the benefits vegetable brings, they have to eat some, since they all want to live a healthy and long life. But at the same time, they might be able to find all sorts of ways to make the vegetables tastier to their desire, so they will more likely want to eat it, even possibly enjoy eating it. Now how should we implement such theory on electronic surveillance? How can we use it in such a way that brings more beneficiary than damage?
Congress has already passed many laws relating to protecting people’s privacy, such as the Video Privacy Protection Act, the Fair Credit Reporting Act, and so on, but the technology is advancing so rapidly, which makes it hard for the congress to react and come up with new law regarding new issues. So, first of all, we will need a group of elites who possess the newest technology in the legislative group, so they will be able to come up with supportive laws as fast as needed. This way the gap between new technology and the laws will be luckily filled up.
On the other hand, it’s a good idea to use every possible way to actively promote virtues in people in the country, higher education is one way to pursue this, high education will bring people up to some level of understanding about how the society function as a whole, how is it important that everybody in the whole nation, whole world need to work together to make the universe a better place to live in. Other than that, good economy, good living condition, good relationship between family members and relatives and friends, all those together will give people a sense of belonging, make people happier and such that not as many people will be thinking about committing crimes, which then leads to less surveillance needed, so in return we’ll all have more privacy. Also, another very important part is how can we make sure our law enforcement personals are well trained about how important it is to stick to their code of professional ethics, such that people can trust them not to misuse private information, and there should be strict laws to regulate when such things does happen. If legitimate person can trust law enforcement to only use their information for specific reasons, they would be more willing to provide such information and give away some of their privacy.