Does Surveillance Serve?

surveillance 3

By Helen McCabe

It would seem that surveillance is a fact of modern life, almost everywhere on the globe. Just in the course of my normal pursuits today, I will have been filmed by CCTV cameras on the bus to work, and quite possibly on my walk to the bus-stop, too; I have used my email, a web search engine and social media, all of which will have kept some sort of record of my activity; and my mobile phone is on, providing data about my whereabouts. Visiting an art gallery the other weekend, my bags were searched. This, and more, including a full body-scan and a recording of my fingerprints, happened as I travelled to and from the US last week. This is all well-known, and has been for a while, so much so that it appears as a normal and unavoidable element of contemporary life.

Revelations last year however, particularly from documents leaked by Edward Snowden, showed that national security agencies are using new electronic surveillance technologies (in conjunction with more traditional methods) to survey much more personal activity than had been imagined, apparently as a matter of course. This created not only a political furore (particularly over the surveillance of heads of ally states), but also general public concerns over the scope, breadth and ubiquity of electronic surveillance.

The purpose, of course, of all (or at least much of) this surveillance is to improve security and to deter or pre-empt crime: electronic (and other) forms of surveillance can help prevent terrorist attacks; can be used to gather intelligence on (other) serious crimes being planned and executed; and can be used to gather evidence against criminals of a variety of kinds. Yet research recently published by the EU-funded project, SURVEILLE, of which Warwick’s Interdisciplinary Ethics Research Group (IERG) is a part, claims that ‘electronic mass-surveillance … fails drastically in striking the correct balance between security and privacy’ which security agencies ‘insist they are maintaining’. That is, despite what security agencies assure us, those modern modes of secret surveillance which caused so much uproar when their use was revealed, not only pose much more serious ethical and legal harms to us as individuals and members of society, but may not be keeping us any safer than more traditional (and less harmful) methods.

SURVEILE pulls together an inter-disciplinary mix of academic experts in legal theory, ethics and security studies; experts in the design and manufacture of surveillance technology; and end-users of surveillance technology in order to assess the effectiveness and efficiency of modern surveillance techniques. This latest report draws on the work done by all these different groups, and concludes that those techniques employed in recent times by security agencies (such as intercepting streams of information through splitting sub-marine cables, data-mining software such as ‘Phantom Viewer’, and surveillance software such as ‘Finspy’) which raise the greatest ethical concerns, are not very effective. As SURVEILLE co-ordinator Professor Martin Scheinin (Professor of Public International Law at the European University Institute and United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism from 2005 to 2011) writes in his report, recently published by website Just Security: ‘What work[s] best in terms of usability also raise[s] the smallest ethical concerns. The gravest ethical concerns were identified with the same … methods of electronic surveillance’ which SURVEILLE’s research showed to be least effective.

This conclusion has been reached by assessment of a variety of different research projects undertaken by members of SUREVILLE.  An important early step in SURVEILLE’s work on determining the effectiveness and efficiency of contemporary surveillance techniques has been trying to determine what surveillance techniques are currently in use, and how they are deployed. Particular regard has then been paid by different project members to the ethical, legal and human-rights violations and concerns posed by such use, and by the usability and cost-effectiveness of these technologies and their use (several reports have been previously published on different aspects of these questions).

One element of this analysis has been to create a matrix for assessing surveillance technologies on the grounds of usability, fundamental rights violations and ethical risks (see here and here for more information).  A scenario drawn up with the help of project members expert in using surveillance technology for security purposes, based on Snowden’s revelations concerning contemporary electronic mass-surveillance and some more traditional surveillance techniques such as bag-searching, was analysed using this matrix.

Three techniques (cable-splitting; using ‘Phantom viewer’; and using ‘Finspy’) were determined to have low usability scores, and the highest ethical risks, whilst opening baggage was determined to have the joint-highest usability score (with social networking analysis) and the best ethical rating, though there were still some ethical harms associated with it (social networking analysis was determined to have an ‘intermediate ethical risk’). Thus, these assessments of both technologists and ethicists concurred in assessing the effectiveness of the surveillance technologies and their use.  Moreover, this was also the conclusion of the lawyers, who determined that the three electronic surveillance technologies which scored ‘red’ for ethical risks also scored the maximum possible for privacy intrusion, whilst the two traditional surveillance techniques were awarded very low scores for privacy intrusion (3/4 rather than (the maximum) 16).

This inter-disciplinary approach gives a multi-dimensional analysis of the effectiveness of surveillance technology and how it is (probably) being used by security agencies at this very moment. SURVEILLE’s recent research shows that those surveillance technologies which have been introduced to combat modern terror and serious-crime threats may not only involve serious ethical and legal harms, but may also not be either the most efficient nor most effective means of ensuring national, and individual, security. Thus, new modes of surveillance may well be a fact of modern life, but they may not be keeping us any safer than more traditional methods, whilst posing much more serious ethical and legal harms.

helen mcabe

Helen McCabe is a Research Fellow with the Interdisciplinary Research Ethics Group, particularly working as part of the SURVEILLE project.  Her other research interests lie in the history of political thought, particularly the works of J.S. Mill.

Website for the Interdisciplinary Ethics Research Group at PAIS.

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