The surveillance society

By Paul McElhinney

In recent years, technology and security requirements have coalesced to produce the very scenario predicted in fiction by writers such as George Orwell: the surveillance society. Recent events surrounding the News of the World phone hacking scandal have brought into sharp relief the many legal and ethical challenges of this new surveillance society.

Developments in digital technology over the last twenty years, and the growing threat from terrorist groups determined to undermine the foundations of stable societies, have provoked reactions that have changed the very nature of how we live. In a general climate of insecurity and low levels of trust, society seems to be rushing to create a security superstructure which is curtailing our basic freedoms. Such pervasive surveillance leads one to wonder: "Can there be any such thing as privacy anymore?"

With the proliferation of social media outlets and the capacity for information to 'go viral’, attempting to protect privacy may be a losing battle. This is a depressing, but sobering reality. Can stricter penalties effectively stamp out future examples of the kind of phone hacking behaviour recently come to light? Many have their doubts. It is not just the ability to carry out surveillance that is of concern, but decisions over who is entitled to hold such information and what use is made of it. The justification for intrusive, government-sponsored surveillance has often been based on the fallacy that if you have nothing to hide, then you should have nothing to worry about.

Such a stance puts the moral onus on the targeted individual and not where the onus should rest – with government. Giving any agency carte blanche to snoop on private information is fraught with potential abuse. It is simply not good enough to assume that a democratic state is necessarily benign; that it will act purely in the public interest and that it will use information fairly and judiciously. Too many breaches of faith have already occurred in avowedly democratic societies; filling the public with justified scepticism.

Thomas Jefferson famously said that "the price of liberty is eternal vigilance". Linked to the encroachment of the surveillance society is the growth of the monitoring industry. In our era of greater accountability and transparency and the capacity afforded by new technology, the activities of people and institutions are coming under closer scrutiny. Measurement of performance against set criteria and benchmarks is becoming all-pervasive. Numerical values are ascribed to every action, indicators are produced, performance is measured and 'outputs, impacts and results' are estimated. So heavy is the administrative burden on some organisations (particularly in the health, education and small business sectors), that the real work of many organisations is being crowded out. ‘Process’ overwhelms ‘product’, with dysfunctional results.

Employee monitoring has also been a source of concern. Employers now play a much more proactive role in monitoring their employees’ behaviour at work; whether at their PCs, on the telephone or even more worryingly, in the staff toilets. Whatever about the ethics of such monitoring, once the technology for surveillance monitoring comes on stream, there is no putting the genie back in the bottle. The negative effects on employee morale can only be imagined.

Maybe the era of Orwell’s ‘Big Brother’ has finally arrived. The big concern is that the current crop of surveillance practices were passed into law without too much clamour under the cover of (genuine) fears over terrorism and fraud. We know only too well how much passed under the radar during our Celtic Tiger years due to both official neglect and the societal obsession with the accumulation of wealth. Democratic societies too have their blind-spots on civil liberties issues. Even Abraham Lincoln suspended the right of habeas corpus during the US Civil War, proving that even people with essentially good intentions can act in a cavalier fashion.

An intelligent and well-informed public can at least seek to protect themselves from excesses by the state. The poor and ill-educated, however, are most vulnerable to exploitation. Recall Jefferson’s warning and hold on tightly to your liberty, otherwise you might find it being trampled underfoot on the seemingly compelling pretext that pervasive surveillance is necessary for your own protection.