The concept of governmental or corporate surveillance has popularly provided the basis of the plots of numerous books, movies, and television shows, from George Orwell’s iconic 1894  to the Minority Report and regularly in TV’s The Sopranos. Yet, far from simply being an aspect of popular fiction, surveillance is an everyday occurrence in the developed world, and is rapidly increasing, with few limits being placed on its expansion. The necessity of these expanded measures of surveillance on the parts of governments is a common matter of debate, but there is little doubt that what currently exists is here to stay, and methods of surveillance under legal auspices are only due to increase and further expand. As Scott McNealy, the CEO of Sun Microsystems famously stated: “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it” (Springer, 1999).

In the 21st Century, the United States of America provides the model for uses of surveillance in most cases, taking many cues from the United Kingdom’s prolific surveillance cameras. The following pages provide a glance at the systems that watch, track, and observe Western societies, and the debates that surround these methods.


Privacy itself as a term is loosely defined at best, and in most circumstances is akin to an umbrella covering a variety of situations, yet never exactly sure what it is covering at any time. “Perhaps the most striking thing about the right to privacy is that nobody seems to have any very clear idea what it is” (Thomson, J, 1984, p. 272). The lack of firm boundaries as to what should fall under the rubric of privacy risks failing to see some problems in their full depth, or misunderstanding them entirely. One explanation of privacy defines it as revolving around the independent stance of the individual. In the words of the court in the case of Smith v. City of Artesia, “Privacy is inherently personal. The right to privacy recognizes the sovereignty of the individual” (p. 376). However, when attempting to find the nucleus of the term, we are left with the option to either keep the definition broad enough to encompass any possible view of privacy, which leaves the definition dubious at time and undoubtably vague. The inverse, giving a narrow definition using only the most precise common denominators between views of privacy give a very restrictive concept of the term. Daniel Solove, a professor of law at The George Washington University, leaves his definition saying, “privacy is not reducible to a singular essence; it is a plurality of different things that do not share one element in common but that nevertheless bear a resemblance to each other” (2008, p. 756). Privacy should not be simply looked at as one overarching element in our society, but rather each issue should stand on its own to be judged on its own merits. However, that is not to say that there are no cases that leave overlap, especially in our modern interconnected world.


The debate surrounding surveillance inevitably pits two very opposing opinions against each other. On one side is the interest of security and information as defended by corporation and governments. The other opinion lies in the hands of the citizens under the influence of these interests, with concerns about their personal privacy and gradual infringements on perceived liberties. These perceptions are not the providence of autocratic governments, nor Orwellian Big Brothers, rather they encompass the majority of liberal Western democratic states, from Australia to the United Kingdom, to the United States and Canada.


The United Kingdom is one of the most prolific users of security cameras, or CCTV (Closed-Circuit Television) and have been deploying this technology since the 1980s (CIPPIC, 2007a) with debated success. The popular assumption is that CCTV provides definite increased security in a two-fold manner: acting as a deterrent against possible criminals, knowing that they are liable to be caught committing their crime on camera; and serving to provide evidence of criminal acts to aid in the prosecution of crimes. However, despite CCTV being in use for nearly 30 years, there is still little conclusive empirical evidence to support these theories, or to accurately deny them.

There is little argument that CCTV provides evidence of crimes committed, though critics argue that this evidence can then be misused in the prosecution of crimes that weren’t intended to be prosecuted via these video systems – such as cameras put in place to protect against car theft find their recordings being used to prosecute underage drinking (Norris, McCahill, & Wood, 2004, p. 116).

Whether CCTV provides a suitable deterrence against the commission of crimes is a much larger and far more contentious question. Critics argue that video surveillance provides only limited deterrence. Although they grant that targeted cameras are generally successful deterrence, they find no evidence that general street or area surveillance has any noticeable impact on the commission of criminal acts. When the camera is placed visibly in a parking garage to prevent car break-ins, or similarly narrowly defined situations, critics agree that they are generally successful. In empirical terms, the debate has data supporting both sides of the situation. In data collected from burglary criminals in prison in Washington State, researchers found that they ranked video recording, and camera systems as the two of the lowest ranked deterrences for them, in 1985 and in 1995 (Erickson, 1995). However, at the same time, a study in Long Island, New York, found that serious crimes dropped considerably, from 15,000 to 8,000, in their comparative time period between 1975 and 1994, after CCTV systems were installed in 1993 (Kushner, 1996).

Another side-affect of video surveillance is ostensibly that of peace-of-mind or perceived security on the part of citizens in areas protected by CCTV. After installation, public perception claims increased feelings of safety, however this returns to its normal levels after a period, once the novelty of the cameras have worn off. This leads to the assumption that feelings of safety are directly tied to the amount of positive publicity surrounding the CCTV systems (CIPPIC, 2007a).


Information provides another piece of the surveillance arsenal, and acts as a key aspect. Data surveillance is the collection of information about an individual, in most cases from multiple sources, all of which can be assembled to provide of profile of that person’s activities and life (Stanley & Steinhardt, 2003, p. 3). With an increasingly connected and globalized world, ever individual leaves considerable digital tracks that, taken alone, seem inconsequential, but when combined can provide an astonishing array of data about the person. Some of the most commonly considered avenues of data surveillance include internet activity, financial data, and location information.

An individual’s internet activity is tracked by most websites, advertising groups, internet service providers, and applications. This data, though in most cases ostensibly anonymous, is officially meant to provide statistics for these business interests, although is also accessible for governmental security applications. With information being considered a tradable and vital commodity, “any consumer activity that is not being tracked and recorded is increasingly being viewed by businesses as money left on the table” (Stanley & Steinhardt, 2003, p. 4).

Financial information was popularly considered to be definitively private, however that tradition is long gone in most Western societies. Instead, financial companies are free to trade and sell their customer’s data to other companies, due in part to financial privacy laws like the 1999 Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act in the United States. Under the Act, customers are responsible for assuring their own privacy, through complicated “opt out” processes, and all remaining customers are free to have their information sold to anyone that their financial institution chooses, including all of the information that customers are required to fill out when applying for loans – information that on its own can provide a considerable profile of the individual.

Location tracking is overtly prevalent in recent years, and several social networks have risen to success on the virtue of sharing one’s location with friends, as well as complete strangers. However, there are far more location-based systems already in existence, and being increasingly deployed. For years, on the basis on aiding emergency services, cell phone manufacturers have been required to include GPS chips in their phones, that are remotely activated by emergency services, for example when one calls 911. However, these precise chips can also be activated by officials on-demand when in the investigation of a crime. Similarly, many cars today include computers similar to the “black boxes” found on aircraft, providing data  about the vehicle, including locations, speed, and movement. These devices can be used to report on their operators to authorities, or commercial entities, such as rental car agencies. Often considered to be one of the most prevalent technologies of the future is that of RFID (Radio Frequency Identifiers), which are small, cheap chips that can be placed on everything from cans of soup to commuter passes, and communicate with receivers, or be intercepted at will. “For example, they could let market researchers scan the contents of your purse or car from five feet away” (Stanley & Steinhardt, 2008, p. 7).


Genetic data provides a unique combination of data that is extremely revealing about the individual, yet almost impossible to keep secure. Everyday we lose thousands of sources of DNA, from skin cells to hair to saliva. With increasingly cheap and available sources of analyzing this data, genetic information is becoming widely obtainable. This information can provide information about life-threatening or work-threatening information that can be sourced by employers concerned about potential new-hires. The similar applies to insurance companies when offering health or life insurance. Finally, with so much information about each one of us storied in these strands of DNA, the opportunities for genetic espionage are considerable. With a strand of hair, an inquisitive individual would be able to glean the genetic profiles of anyone at will, with little legal obstacles.

Total Information

When multiple sources of surveillance are combined, often with the aid of computers, then their power is truly recognized. Video surveillance is limited on its own, however with the aid of computer systems and basic biometrics, facial recognition allows for not simply the observance of individuals, but the definitive tracking of them whenever they venture out. There are some serious legal and privacy-related issues at stake with facial recognition, which are not as prevalent with other personally identifying systems such as iris or other biometric scanning systems (Dean, 2007). Unlike an iris scan, facial recognition does not require any knowledge, participations, or consent (assumed or otherwise) on the part of the individual identified. Whereas with an iris scan, the subject would have to overtly partake by placing their eye in the field of the scan, facial recognition can operate with the aid of cameras from dozens or hundreds of feet away. Rather than being simply a feature of television or movies, facial recognition is already a widely used system in the United States, from airports to tourist attractions to major cities (Stanley & Steinhardt, 2008, p. 3).


Although commercial entities are demonstrably one of the most prominent utilizers and collectors of surveillance methods, governments and governmental agencies are often the targets of privacy critics, and not without reason. Much of the information that is gathered about individual’s movements, practices, and lives are available to governments, in the interests of security. This applies to differing levels in different nations, although the tendency in Western society is to gradually follow the actions of other states. Although the United Kingdom pioneered many of the surveillance methods debated today, it was not until following the events of the September 11th, 2001 terror attacks that the United States enacted measures in the interest of security that would dramatically pressure the concepts of privacy, and serve as the model for other states to follow in the succeeding years.

Yet even then, in the half-decade preceding the events of 2001, programs such as the FBI’s controversial “Carnivore” program inserted themselves in the very fabric of supposedly private communications. The program was similar to the well-known phone wiretaps of the preceding decades, except that this system acted as a wiretap on email traffic of an individual. The difference being that with a conventional wiretap, only the affected line was tapped, but with Carnivore, all of the traffic on the Internet Service Provider was collect, and it was only software that differentiated other data from the targeted individual’s data. Obvious privacy concerns did nothing to prevent or limit this program, and with the later Patriot Act, it was effectively renewed and expanded. A similar program was the international “Echelon” partnership of Canada, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, observing and intercepting electronic communications from all over the world, with the caveat that nations were only to listen in on other nations, not their own. However, nothing restricted nations from sharing information gathered from each other.

The USA PATRIOT Act (Uniting & Strengthening American by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) enacted in 2001 has served effectively as the model for similar measures that Western nations implement, such as Canada’s PIPEDA (Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act). Amongst many other articles, the Patriot Act allows American government agencies to gather information from companies or organizations, effectively at will, with little or no disclosure, and no need to inform the party under investigation (until after the breach of privacy). Both the Patriot Act and PIPEDA allow this massive wealth of information that is being gathered, and which is undoubtedly poised to expand, from genetic information to video tracking of individuals to be gathered and utilized by governmental agencies, and in Canada’s case, shared with American counterparts.

Critics of the approach taken by governments in the name of privacy cite exaggerated threats, and accuse officials of utilizing the events of 2001 and the London Bombings of 2005 as excuses to drastically widen their powers. “Far too often, the balancing of privacy interests against security interests takes place in a manner that severely shortchanges the privacy interest while inflating the security interests” (Solove, 2008, p. 772). However, proponents of these measures point to the relatively short period of time that these measures have been in effect, and to the security concerns that prevent many of the uses of this information from being made public – failures are made vibrantly public, whereas successes are kept quiet to allow law enforcement and intelligence agencies to continue to use information gathered.


The debate surrounding the use of surveillance, and what can be considered intrusions on privacy will be matters for continuous contention for quite some time. Just as privacy as a term has a variety of aspects, surveillance is demonstrably multi-faceted. There is a delineation between corporate and commercial surveillance, and governmental methods. Whereas commercial surveillance is firmly there to act as a profit gathering mechanism, governmental is there to provide law enforcement and defense. However, one can hardly pick and choose between the two, as governmental surveillance is widely dependent on the information gathered from service providers, corporate data-banks, and other industries. There is certainly no clean and pleasant solution the resolve the conflict between the critics and supporters of surveillance methods.

We live in an amazingly fast-paced and changing world, where laws are unable to keep pace with technical methods are everyone’s disposal. In 1920, if law enforcement officials wanted to gather information on the whereabouts and practices of an individual, they would be forced to sit in the rain outside their abode, and trail them around town. All this could be accomplished without the use of a warrant, as the individual was in what would be considered the public area. In the 21st century, this is exceedingly more complex, as the criminal would be able to accomplish everything that he had to drive around town with his FBI tail for, and never move from his private residence, simply by using telephones, the internet, and satellite communication. Law enforcement has had to evolve rapidly to continue, yet much of the evidence that would be required to obtain a search warrant to place a wiretap or other digital surveillance tools would be unattainable without the use of the digital surveillance in the first place. This cycle puts both concepts of privacy and law enforcement in an inevitable tangle, with society’s expectations of privacy evolving at pace removed from the pace of the technologies protecting or infringing that privacy.

The redeeming factor that applies to the governmental, and to a lesser extent, the corporate surveillance is that the individuals and authorities instituting these measures work for the people that they are surveilling. In democratic systems, the government is representative of the people, and responsible to the people. Therefore, society that objects to manners of surveillance are themselves responsible for choosing those that watch them. It is not the watchers that control the watched, but the watched that hire the watchers.




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