Hidden cameras will watch how consumers respond to displays and advertising. Police officers will monitor public spaces, as they do in London (1). “Please pick up your trash, sir.” Cell-phone companies will track your movements.

In the future, on every street light, in front of every house, and behind every advertisement, there will be surveillance cameras. Surveillance will be everywhere.

As the cost of surveillance cameras and data storage drop, the number of surveillance cameras will increase exponentially. Already, with the ubiquity of cell-phones and digital cameras, there is almost nothing that goes unnoticed by the watchful eye of camera. In 15 years, we will be under nearly constant surveillance.

Almost everything that you do will be on camera, whether going to the supermarket, or having coffee with friends. And much of this data will be stitched together to provide a gods-eye view of you and your activities. In addition, new technologies may be used to monitor facial cues, heart beat, and various physiological indicators, providing key insights into your internal states and psychology.

Yet, many people would argue that surveillance, whether in the real world or online, hardly seems like a real problem. But, if we look at this as a phenomenon still in its infancy, there is cause for serious concern. Surveillance may be used for good or bad. In part, it depends on who is watching. Are children going to be able to go to the playground without fear of being spied on by child predictors? We may ask, “Who is watching? “Who decides?” “And why should I care?”

Surveillance may be used to control other people. People, almost universally, seek power over one-another – whether the intensions are good or bad. Knowledge is a form of power. And in concert with other forms of power, it is extremely effective. Knowledge is power, not only at a national level, but at the interpersonal level. If you have ever been bullied, or got in trouble for lying, you may have experienced this yourself.

People are going to use surveillance technologies to pursue their own goals, whether a police officer, a market researcher, an ex-girl friend, a parent, or an employer. If we want to know how a person is going to use surveillance technologies, we can usually ask, “What do they want?” A criminal, for instance, uses surveillance to help steal.

We do not need to consult the research literature to conclude that we do not like being watched. Sometimes, we feel inhibited when we are watched. Sometimes, we are afraid. (Although many of us enjoy an audience, now and then.) We value our privacy and are uncomfortable with surveillance, the “threat of interference, interruption, and injury in our projects and relationships” (2).

Surveillance may also inhibit the development of trust both socially and developmentally. Children need to learn independence, responsibility, and trust. “Are teenagers going to be able to try cigarettes without mom finding out? And does it really matter?”

As a general rule, anthropologists tell us, extensive surveillance is a bad thing. Anthropologists explain that cultures characterized by surveillance tend to be characterized by suspicion, unhappiness, intrigue, and drama. Just think of living with the archetypal “evil mother-in-law” (an almost universal archetype, interestingly enough) and you get the idea.

At the national level, some level of surveillance is necessary. Even fairly extensive surveillance, as may be found in Singapore, may be relatively harmless. In fact, some surveillance is necessary. Let us not forget that social expectations and the rule of law fulfill important social functions, and would not be possible without some form of social surveillance.

On the other hand, heavy surveillance by authoritarian regimes may be anything but benign. In the Soviet Union, for instance, people were afraid to even talk to their family or friends. If surveillance facilitates the abuse of power, as it did in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, it is something that we must be wary of. This, simply put, is a road we don’t want to go down.

Surveillance gives us power over others, whether exercised or not. Yet, there is a natural inclination to use power, and to justify its use. In this way, surveillance tends to promote the abuse of power. It reminds one of a police officer who explains, “If you don’t have anything to hide, then you won’t mind if I search your car.”

Advocates will argue that we need surveillance to aid in law enforcement and homeland security, to better tailor goods and services to consumer demand, and to help take care of people who cannot be trusted to take care of themselves. Others will argue that surveillance is unavoidable.

On the other hand, the argument against various forms of surveillance can be summarized as follows, “We don’t trust you and we don’t want you meddling in our affairs!”


In conclusion, with the development of the digital camera and internet tracking, we are seeing an increase in various forms of surveillance. We see an increase in government surveillance, marketing surveillance, peer surveillance, and spying on an interpersonal level. And this is a bad thing.

Although some surveillance may be necessary – parents watch their children, the government needs to prevent crime, and so on and so forth – pervasive surveillance is hardly necessary and is not without considerable potential costs.

Surveillance is a form of power. When we are under surveillance, people gain a measure of control over us. Or to put it another way, surveillance leads to a potential loss of a degree of control over our image, our projects and activities, and our relationships. In addition, surveillance is not conducive to the development of intimacy, trust, and a sense of safety, and may lead to isolation and withdrawal. (3)

1) See: http://uk.reuters.com/article/topNews/idUKL0458389820070404
Readers may also be interested in the new police surveillance system in Chicago.
2) Elgesem, D. (1996). Privacy, respect for persons, and risk. In Ed. C. Ess (Ed.), Philosophical Perspectives on Computer Mediated Communication (pp. 45-66). Albany: State University of New York. p. 57.
3) Cline, M.S. (2005). Power, Madness, and Immortality: the Future of Virtual Reality. p. 132.
Elgesem, D. (1996). Privacy, respect for persons, and risk. In Ed. C. Ess (Ed.), Philosophical Perspectives on Computer Mediated Communication (pp. 45-66). Albany: State University of New York. p. 57.
Wilson, P. J. (1988). The Domestication of the Human Species. New Haven, CT: Yale. p. 99.

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