Sunday, July 24, 2011


A university faced with a growing crime problem involving the theft of electronic devices wanted to install a number of surveillance cameras on buildings. Some on campus argued that the university, instead, should design public spaces with enough activity and “eyes on the street” that surveillance cameras would not be necessary, while others objected to the cameras as a violation of their privacy.

The philosopher Peter Singer has written an insightful essay in Harpers* looking at some of the ethical dilemmas raised in our media-saturated world, where between the widespread use of cameras and the apparent urge of people to tell all on their Facebook pages, privacy has almost completely disappeared. Singer makes his point by an architectural analogy: Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. Imagined by Bentham as the perfect surveillance device, the Panopticon was a radial building in which one person could stand at the center and observe the activities of everyone at the perimeter.

Singer then observes that “The modern Panopticon is not a physical building … With surveillance technology like closed-circuit television cameras and digital cameras now linked to the Internet, we have the means to implement Bentham’s inspection principle on a much vaster scale. What’s more, we have helped construct this new Panopticon, voluntarily giving up troves of personal information. We blog, tweet, and post what we are doing, thinking and feeling.”

Key to the ethics of our “modern Panopticon” is the question of whether we participate in it voluntarily or not. When we choose to go into public places, we give up a degree of privacy in order to be with or interact with other people. In our era, that also means our acceptance of being monitored by surveillance cameras. That fact invalidates the claim by some, in this case, that the additional security cameras on campus would violate their privacy. Their being in public means that they have already relinquished a degree of privacy, whether observed by cameras or by other people.

That claim, though, does reflect a widespread misunderstanding of and indeed an unfortunate decline in public life and the public realm. Busy streets, full of pedestrians able to watch for possible criminal behavior, can make cameras irrelevant, which is what those who argued for an enlivened campus in lieu of cameras had in mind. Meanwhile the lack of such crowds has not only prompted the electronic surveillance of public spaces, but also perhaps the growing use of social media, which in some sense moves “public” visibility to the Internet.

Social contract theory has some relevance here. Thomas Hobbes argued that we need a strong central authority to keep people from harming each other, as he believed we would do without such restraint. He would likely have supported the use of surveillance cameras on campus for that reason. Jean Jacques Rousseau, in contrast, had a suspicion of central authority and believed people to be naturally good apart from the corrupting influence of society. Rousseau would probably have argued: the fewer cameras, the better.

Between those two extreme views stood John Locke, who recognized the value of central authority, but argued that its legitimacy rests with the consent of the governed. Locke might have urged the university to find a balance between deploying cameras where absolutely necessary and doing whatever possible to encourage people to assemble in public. Singer’s essay echoes Locke. Singer observes that electronic devices now allow those surveyed to watch their surveyors as well as the other way around. Such two-way surveillance becomes analogous to democracy, in which we, the governed, watch our representatives – protecting not only our security, but also our liberty.

* Singer, Peter. “Visible Man, Ethics in a World without Secrets,” Harpers, August 2011, p. 32-36.

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