Surveillance Society

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Capurro, Rafael
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Helseth, Mason (4 Dec 2018, within the course "Odyssey of Philosophy and Information", facilitated by J.M.Díaz at HM)

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The Philosophy of Surveillance

[The fact that you are referring to some philosophers points of view, doesn't mean that you are making a philosophy of surveillance. That could be what surveillance is in the first place, and this could be split into epistemology, ontology, ethics of surveillance...]


The paper looks at the idea of surveillance and how the government is watching us. It starts off by talking about a few of the different ways that the NSA, CIA, and other government agencies are gathering all of this information about us. Not just how they are gathering the information, but also how much information they are able to collect about us. The second part of the paper talks about why they are collecting all of this information and what they are using it for. The final part of the paper will cover how different philosophers have different views on our rights to privacy. Along with whether or not the government should be tracking all of this information about us.

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In the world and in our lives, there will always be one thing that we cannot fully escape, that is surveillance from the government. With all the technology we have at our fingertips, likes our phones and our computers, along with security cameras all around the world, the amount of information that can be recorded about a single person is unimaginable. Every time we access the internet, post a picture, or even just go out to eat, that information is being tracked and stored without us even being aware of it. How is all this information being gathered and how much are they gathering? How is the government using this information and how does that affect us? Most importantly though, does the government have the right to be tracking all of this information?

With smartphones that almost all of us carry around in our pockets and use every day, we are able to gain more information about the world faster than ever before. However, that acts as a double-edged sword in the fact that the world is then able to gain more information on us. Because of this, the information or knowledge we gain from using the internet and such has become more transparent.

The main source of surveillance that is used by the NSA is through a program called PRISM. PRISM gives the NSA access to emails, documents, photographs and other data stored in major companies. It was originally launched in 2007 when it passed the Protect America Act. Then in 2008 the FISA Amendments Act gave legal immunity to private companies that participated voluntarily with the US Intelligence agencies. This meant that major companies could give the NSA access to the data created by the users, such as their emails, document, etc.

The first company to partner with PRISM was Microsoft and instantly the NSA started collecting large amounts of data from its servers. After that, other large companies joined including Facebook, Google, Yahoo, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple. While they all joined on their own behalf, in “2008 Congress gave the Justice Department authority to compel a reluctant company to “comply” with the needs of PRISM” (Rathnam, 2017). This basically means that companies that did not choose to take part in PRISM were forced to do so at the behest of court order. PRISM became the NSA’s main source of raw data. This program stayed a secret until 2013 when the program became known to public through the leaking of documents by Edward Snowden.

Another form of surveillance that the NSA has been using to compile large amounts of information is through wiretapping. On April 25, 2013, the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court granted an order to the FBI which states that Verizon must provide the details of all calls to the NSA. Verizon is one of the biggest telecommunication companies in the US. However, it didn’t stop there as the court order was soon sent to AT&T and Sprint. This gave the NSA access to calls from the three largest phone companies in the US. With these three companies, the NSA would receive the “numbers of both parties on a call, location data, call duration, time of the call, International Mobile Subscriber Identity number and any other unique identifiers” (Rathnam, 2019). While that information is being collected, they are still unable to collect what is being said during the calls or of the messages being sent. At the end of all this, the NSA will have gathered more than 534 million records of phone calls and text messages in 2017.

The NSA isn’t the only agency gathering information about their people. An agency called the GCHQ has also been found gathering information and partaking in surveillance. The GCHQ, Government Communications Headquarters, is the UK spy agency whose mission is to gather intelligence and information. They are the UK’s version of the NSA. They use a program called Tempora, which inputs data interceptors on fiber-optic cables that carry internet trafficking between the US and Europe.  The fiber-optic cables that they are tapping can transfer 10 gigabits of data per second. This means that the GCHQ has access to 21 petabytes of new data each day.

It would be impossible for one person, or even a large group of people, to sift through all this information. However, using a technique called Massive Volume Reduction, MVR, they are able to narrow it down to just the important information. Through the use of trigger words, email addresses, or targeted persons and phone numbers, they are able to reduce the information by 30 percent. The GCHQ is not the only agency that has access to this information. It was first launched in 2008 and by late 2011 the US was given access to all the data collected by the Tempora program.

There are many other ways that the NSA is collecting data about us, like through an elite hacker team called Tailored Access Operations or another program called Dishfire. With all this data and information, what is it used for? One simple and less harmful reason is for creating personalized advertisements. For example, if you are often searching for shoes on a shopping website, your web browser will track that data. Then when you go to a different website that has adds on it, you will see the shoes that you were looking at earlier.

More importantly though the NSA is using all this data for targeting and locating terrorist attacks and other threats. Monitoring cellphone use, internet use, and social media use of people gives the NSA an idea of who may be involved in any sort of terrorist business. This also allows the NSA to determine the importance of a threat, whether it’s happening within the next week or the next year. All the data they are collecting helps them determine this information about different threats. If the CIA suspects someone to be a terrorist, they will be put on the terrorist watchlist. The official name for this watchlist is the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, also known as TIDE. TIDE is then used to create other lists like the No-Fly list and border security lists.

Along with the No-Fly and border security list, the government also tracks “suspect terrorist” as well as “known terrorist.” It is a very broad list. For example, non-terrorist individuals can be placed on the watchlist if they are suspected of being a suspected terrorist or if they are suspected of associating with people who are suspected of terrorism activity. There are many rules and loopholes for putting people on the watchlist even if there is no proof of reasonable suspicion. Another rule states that “the immediate family of suspected terrorists may be watchlisted without any additional suspicion, along with associates and anyone with “a possible nexus” to terrorism” (Brandom, 2014). All these rules do a poor job of narrowing it down to true terrorist.

This creates a lot of inaccuracy with determining who is a terrorist and who is not, which is why collecting all of this data is not always affective. Not only is it ineffective to finding terrorist, it also makes life very difficult for that person that is put on the watchlist as a terrorist or a terrorist suspect. Getting a job may become more difficult because their employer now suspects them to be a terrorist. Traveling can become more burdensome, or even impossible. Casual encounters with law enforcement can become more serious.

Getting taken off of the watchlist is no easy task and may even be impossible. Because the watchlist is so secret, one cannot know if they are or are not on the watchlist. If they are, the government makes it impossible to find out why. Even after death one will most likely stay on the list. “The guidelines say that names of dead people will stay on the list if there is reason to believe the deceased’s identity may be used by a suspected terrorist—which the National Counterterrorism Center calls a “demonstrated terrorist tactic” (Scahill and Devereaux, 2014). For getting off the list, one can file a complaint through the Department of Homeland Security Traveler Redress Inquiry Program. If it passes, one may be removed or their watchlist status may be adjusted, but the individual will not be informed of the results. While these lists may contain actual terrorist threats, they also contain a large number of ordinary citizens who should not be on the list.

With all these different watchlists and numerous ways to track our communication, why is it that terrorist attacks and other sorts of threats are still happening? One reason for this, as stated by Edward Snowden, is because “we’re monitoring everybody’s communications, instead of suspects’ communications. That lack of focus has caused us to miss leads that we should’ve had” (Guariglia, 2017). In a way it is because of all the lists that contain suspect terrorists that is causing the government to oversee the known terrorist.

The reasoning for the government surveilling our every call, social media post, etc. is for good intent, but is it the right thing to do? Are they watching so much of what we do to the point where it becomes an invasion of privacy?

The idea that we have rights to privacy goes all the way back to 1890 when Warren and Brandeis first attempted to define the concept of privacy. They “claim that the right to privacy is an instance of the right to be let alone and establish limits to that right, arguing that it is not absolute” (Macnish). This was then related to the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution, which forbids unreasonable search and seizure by the state, in the legal case Katz v. United States. “Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972) then established that the right to privacy involved the right to make important choices without government intervention, drawing a connection between privacy and autonomy” (Macnish). Discussing the right to privacy started with many court cases, which soon led to debates by philosophers.

Philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson argues that “the right of privacy is not a distinct right on its own but is rather derived from other rights” (Green, 2015). She hypothesizes that the right to privacy can never be left on its own but can only be within other rights. These other rights being property rights, rights over the person, rights not to be caused distress, and rights to have agreements kept. Thomson breaks down the right to privacy into four groups simply because she does not believe that there is a distinct or unified definition of the right to privacy. Violating ones right to privacy can only happen when one of the four rights have been violated.

Another philosopher, Thomas Scanlon, responds to Thomson’s argument stating that “we have socially-defined zones of privacy which enable us to act with the assumption that we are not being monitored. These zones are motivated by our interest in not having to be alert to specific observation at all times” (Macnish). Scanlon gives an example of a zone being a place, such as the home. While Scanlon agrees with Thomson that the right to privacy has no single definition, he thinks differently in that it can be more narrowed down than four different groups.

In response to both Thomson and Scanlon, another philosopher James Rachels compares privacy with levels of relationships. Rachels states that “in defining our relationships with others, we use varying degrees of privacy to establish intimacy” (Macnish). He explains this by using the example of a stranger. We hold a greater level of privacy with a stranger in comparison to a close family member. He also described that being someone’s friends would mean having less privacy between each other.

Another argument that has been going on about privacy is based on the hypothesis by W.A. Parent. Parent’s idea of privacy is that “privacy involved the control of undocumented information about oneself” (Macnish). Parent bases privacy off of information. However, philosophers Jeffrey Reimann and Tony Doyle disagree in that privacy is not just involved with information. They back their case with an example of a porn star. While a porn stars body is free to be seen by all, he or she can still have their privacy violated if spied on while in their own home.

There are many philosophers that have their own views on privacy, these are just a few, some beliefs disagree with each other while others relate very closely. Overall though, most would agree that individually, privacy gives us the ability to be who we are and to find our true selves by protecting our dignity. Having our own privacy allows us to hide our weaknesses and vulnerabilities from the public. Knowing that our weaknesses are not on display for all to see gives us the sense of safety when in public with people that we may not know. Having our own privacy also allows us to stay unknown and innocent to others. This may encourage us to speak more publicly about social norms that we may not agree with or may allow us to be more creative in self-expression. Having a sense of privacy allows us to be who we are.

With the government watching our every move and keeping track of all our calls and internet use, how are we supposed to have our own sense of privacy. Even though the government is doing this in attempt to keep us safe from terrorist, it is also breaking us down from who we really are. Looking at how different philosophers have different definitions for privacy, there is no way in determining if it is truly right or wrong for the government to be keeping track of all of this information. While to some it may seem as an invasion of privacy and to others it may just seem normal, that is for you to decide and for you to choose whether you are going to change the way you live and who you are based on that. 


[Use properly the APA style, as you can see in the central column]

  • Brandom, R. (2014, July 23). This is how the US government classifies people as terrorists. The Verge Retrieved from as [(1) Refer the source name, in this case The Verge. This is always relevant. If one check and see "Nature", the credit is higher. Actually the quality filters makes that some sources are much more trustful than others. Do it, please, for the next references. (2) By selecting the URL and clicking on the link icon within the tools menu, you converted into an active link. Do it please with the next URLs]
  • Collins, N. (2016, January 13). Searching Private Data, and Ensuring It Stays Private. Retrieved from
  • Granick, J. S. (2017, December 23). Mass Spying Isn't Just Intrusive---It's Ineffective. Retrieved from
  • Green, M. J. (2015, April 29). Thomson on privacy. Retrieved from
  • Green, M. J. (2015, April 29). Scanlon on privacy. Retrieved from
  • Guariglia, M. (2017, July 18). Too much surveillance makes us less free. It also makes us less safe. Retrieved from
  • Lynch, M. P. (2015, May 07). The philosophy of privacy: Why surveillance reduces us to objects. Retrieved from
  • Macnish, K. (n.d.). Surveillance Ethics. Retrieved from
  • Rathnam, L. (2017, April 19). PRISM, Snowden and Government Surveillance: 6 Things You Need To Know. Retrieved from
  • Savage, C. (2018, May 04). N.S.A. Triples Collection of Data From U.S. Phone Companies. Retrieved from