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Ethical and Moral Issues in Surveillance Technology

Surveillance technology: The ethical and moral dilemma


The global increase in terrorist atrocities, such as 9/11 in the United States and 7/7 in the United Kingdom, have undoubtedly led to the increase necessity for surveillance technology in order to protect society and it’s citizens. The question is how far have these developments reduced the “claim of individuals, groups or institutions to determine for themselves when, how, and to what extent information about them is communicated to others.” DeCrew (1997)

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Over the past three decades, digital surveillance technology, and its usage, has increased dramatically across a whole range of areas that impact upon our lives, as both individuals and groups. Advances in digital technology and science means that governments and commercial organisations have the ability to maintain a more widespread visual, physical and data based record of every aspect of a citizen’s life. From CCTV to speed cameras, passports to credit cards and DNA, the tracking of an individual’s movements, financial activity, health, and other relevant aspects, have the potential to be compiled centrally into a complete, and regularly updateable profile. One of the latest such digital advances, is the Electronic Vehicle Identification system (EVI), with which the international movement of vehicles, and by default, their owners, can be tracked.

The potential of intrusive surveillance, particularly in terms of digital technology advances, has received little serious attention from the public, despite the fact much of it is not inspected, unregistered, and misunderstood, (Lyons 2002) although possibly deliberately used. The reason for the public’s apparent apathy could result from the subtle way in which technology has been developed and implemented. These developments raise some serious ethical and moral issues.

Visual and physical surveillance

“Great Britain is acknowledged to be the most watched nation in the world. It has been estimated that there is one CCTV camera for every fourteen citizens of this country, and you can be caught on camera up to 300 times merely by walking around the streets of your nearest city.” (Kirstie Ball 2006).

In its infancy, digital surveillance technology was primarily visual based and utilised for security and protection purposes. A classic example of this is the CCTV use in car parks and towns, and X-ray machines at airports, both used to detect the potential for, and prevention of crime against persons or property. This type of surveillance was overt, in that there were publicly displayed signs clearly indicating the use of such equipment, and no attempt was made to hide the equipment itself. However CCTV, now using the latest digital, satellite, and web-cam technologies, has become far more sophisticated, with the equipment itself a fraction of the size it was. It is used extensively in town and urban locations, both in static and mobile forms. As many celebrities have found to their dismay, range for identification purposes is no longer a problem.

Similar developments have occurred in travel. Now it is possible to dispense with traditional (hard) surveillance techniques of x-ray and search, in favour of (soft) automatic sensing devices. Some modes of transport have installed video transmitting devices. (G.T. Marx 2005). Potential travellers do not have to allow this infringement of their rights, but if they do not they will be unable to use the travel facilities.

With the EVI system, the EU is endeavouring to develop an international standard, utilised by manufacturers, member state governments, and public bodies, of vehicle identification. The recommendation is to include this device within the vehicle chassis. Ostensibly, the promoters of this system state that its specific purpose is for vehicle identification, location, and security (Intelligent Transport Systems. 2006). However, it is acknowledged that, through other agencies, there is an ability to link this information to the personal details of the car owner. In this respect the EU, recommend the introduction of more enhanced data protection and privacy legislation.

Technology is now available that can search without the necessity of consent, detecting persons by such characteristics as scent, breath and odour. For example, a machine can remotely inhale a person’s breath to detect alcohol content, without the consent, or any proactive action, of the individual. Thermal imaging and night-vision technology allows surveillance that was not previously possible, penetrating buildings and darkness. Current research is also looking at the development of technology and equipment able to detect a person’s medical condition, simply by odour analysis.

Data Profiling

Advances in digital technology have also led to a vast expansion in the way that personal financial, ethnic; lifestyle and other related recorded data is collected and thus performs a surveillance task. Credit cards now contain substantially more information than previously possible, with ‘chip and pin’ cards now able to store a whole raft of personal data. The new UK personal identity card will store a complete personal dossier on the individual, which can include ethnic, age, and medical history. Theoretically, and in some cases in practice, databases held by local authorities, governments, commercial organisations, and other bodies can be linked to other user systems.

Ethics and Morals

The ethical and moral dilemmas surrounding digital surveillance technology seem to increase in tandem with the advances made in this field. Within these dilemmas there also needs to be a link between practical and philosophical ethical values. Paul La Forge (1999) in his presentation to the OEC suggested that, “practical ethics can be conceived of as … an ethical vision, nourished and integrated around a philosophical viewpoint.” It follows that governments and businesses should consider this when making decisions regarding digital surveillance. There are three main areas where ethical and moral dilemmas may arise because of the use of this technology.

Collection of data

Information can be collected from individuals in a number of ways. Firstly, it can be required by law, be that government at all levels or the judicial system. In this instance, there is a demand placed upon the individual to part with the data therefore, providing the collection agency has encompassed sufficient protection, there is no choice. The dilemma facing the collection agency is to ascertain the ethical necessity of the information gathered and avoid breaches of human rights. There are also faced with the moral duty to ensure that any location the information is transmitted to will not use it for purposes that are unethical, immoral or impinge upon the individual human and civil rights.

Secondly, information may be collected by request. The dilemma with this method is that, from the providers’ point of view, often it is accompanied by a negative consequence, as we saw with the transport examples given earlier. There is a penalty, or loss, if you decide not to divulge the required information. For example, a person may not be able to purchase a property if they do not divulge financial and other historical information about themselves. The other problem with denying a request for information is the perception that it may leave with the requesting source. Even the denial itself may be noted. Conversely, such information gathering can be accompanied by a positive consequence. If you provide the information, there will be a gain. This could be something like a gift, or a discount on a product or service. As Lyons (2002) observed, this method has the potential for suspicion by denial, or seduction for acceding to the request.

In the third instance, data is collected visually with such items as CCTV, speed cameras, satellite, and data provided via credit and store card applications. In addition, information can be collected covertly via such methods as computer and electronic mail monitoring, inadvertently through applications for competitions, insurance, and other products, or through the simple act of completing a survey. Simple innocent actions in releasing information in these ways can lead to personal data being available in the public domain for any purpose. The question the collection sources need to ask themselves in this case is whether collection in such a manner is ethically or morally defensible. EVI is an example of this type of collection; choice here is likely to become restricted once this system is in place. If you own or purchase a car, there is no choice but to accept the knowledge that the vehicles’ location, and by default possibly the owners, can be traced internationally. The only element of privacy choice is being denied the right to own a car.

Protection of data

The paramount issue is privacy. Under law, every person has a right to privacy. The difficulty lies in deciding where that right begins and ends. For example, there is an ethical vision that a person’s home is their “castle,” a place where they can expect privacy, unless they invite its invasion. However, in the case of Kyllo v United States (2001), where thermal imaging was used, it was adjudged that there was no expectation of privacy as no effort had been taken to contain block heat emissions. This absolved the investigators from any moral breach by their actions. Privacy in respect of a person’s activity external to the house is a more difficult judgement to make. Many radio shows now offer their thousands of listeners the ability to view web-cams of town centres and other public areas. Does this create an invasion of privacy for the person who might be walking through the streets of the town at that point?

Data protection is another human right that is protected by law. The EU have already recognised that, in the development of the EVI system, they are creating the potential for access to personal information about the owner by the use of this technology. However, bearing in mind that this information will be available to the vehicle manufacturers, system designer, and potentially other organisations such as insurance companies and vehicle testing and maintenance location, there is considerable opportunity for such data to be transmitted to any number of sources. Therefore, although the government sources may have strict safeguards, this does not necessarily attach to other sources. Motoring organisations have already expressed doubts about this system, claiming it may breach human rights.

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Use of data

Lyons (2002) observed that the possession of information does provide for a divisive environment. It can be used to denote social standing, ethnicity, financial or physical ability, as well as political persuasion. The dilemma is the factors upon which such divisions are made. For example, social standing may be dictated by the area of residence. Political leanings may be incorrectly analysed. The information itself can be incorrectly organised, creating difficulty for the individual.


Whilst public security and protection is an admirable goal, questions remain regarding the ethics and morals surrounding digital surveillance technology. Opinions differ on this. Governments claim it is essential in the fight against terrorism, are not over intrusive, and a small price to pay for security. David Reisman’s (2001) book presents an opposing viewpoint, suggesting that surveillance technology doesn’t succeed in its prime target of averting disasters, causes injustice, and squanders resources, whilst at the same time providing the potential for social and personal division and invasion of privacy.

Our research shows that a number of ethical and moral issues need still to be addressed and that government, commercial organisations, and other bodies, whilst performing the duties for which they were elected, have a duty to ensure that the performance of those duties do not contravene the ethical and moral rights of the individual.


Ball, Kirstie (2006). Who’s watching you work? Surveillance in business. BBC, The Money Progamme. Retrieved 12 August 2006 http://www.open2.net/money/briefs_20060526watching.html

DeCew, J. (1997). In Pursuit of Privacy, Law, Ethics, and the Rise of Technology. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Intelligent Transport Systems. (2006) Electronic Vehicle Identification. European Commission, Directorate-General for Energy and Transport

La Forge, Paul (1999) Practical Ethics through Philosophy: Meditation, Readings, Casework. Presented at the OEC International Conference on Ethic in Engineer and Computer Science. March 1999.

Lyons, D (2002). Surveillance and Social Sorting. Routledge. New York

Marx, G.T. (2005) Soft Surveillance: The Growth of Mandatory Volunteerism in Collecting Data – “Hey Buddy Can You Spare a DNA? Dissent, winter 2005

Mohammed E. (1999). An Examination of Surveillance Technology and Their Implications for Privace and Related Issues – The Philosophical Legal Perspective. The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT) 1999 (2). Retrieved 13 August 2006 from http://elj.warwick.ac.uk/jilt/99-2/mohammed.html

Reporter of Decisions. (2001) Syllabus of Kyllo v United States (99-8508) 533 U.S. 27 (2001) 190 F .3d 1041. Supreme Count of the United States.

Riesman, D. et al (2001). The Lonely Crowd. Yale University Press. New Haven

Olliffe, R (2002). Briefing on Automatic Number Plate Recognition and Electronic Vehicle Identification Systems. British Motorcyclists Federation. Retrieved 15 August 2006 http://www.bmf.co.uk/home-page/index-0401.html

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