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Can Spying Ever Be Ethical?

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Chemistry
Wordcount: 3579 words Published: 18th May 2020

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In modern times, spying is a normality for every country’s intelligence agencies. While it may not seem irrational when first becoming aware about a country spying on other areas of the world or its own citizens, the real questions that remain include: Does that make it ethical? Can it ever be ethical? For such an ongoing debated topic, it is relevant and vital to understand the definition of the term “ethical” when it is referenced with spying. According to https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/ethical , ethical can be defined as the following: “relating to beliefs about what is morally right and wrong.” So, is there any morality when it comes to intelligence agencies watching every action made by alternative agencies or people? To be blunt, it is morally incorrect to invade others privacy thus, making it unethical. However, on the practical side of this argument, it is necessary to do so in the modern era.

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 There is spying on your own people and there is spying on the alternative nations or organizations. Firstly, the system of watching people in one’s own country to determine threats is unethical in the fact that it is violating individual’s privacy rights. For instance, in the United States of America, there are multiple arguments made by the people that the government obtains too much power in the fact that they have too much access to regular citizen’s information. For the thought of constantly being watched through what one simply googles searches on their phone does not seem to make people confident or comfortable with their own technological products. In other words, citizens are feeling uneasy about not having enough privacy with their own technology. In fact, according to https://www.aclu.org/blog/national-security/privacy-and-surveillance/nsa-continues-violate-americans-internet-privacy , author Toomey argues that the National Security Agency is violating American’s privacy rights with their access to emails, calls, chats, and the basic applications within their phones. This article written by Patrick Toomey seems to support the argument that spying truly can never be considered morally correct. For morals and ethics involve important attributes that range from trust to communication, and consent. To elaborate on the attributes, in order to spy or access one’s personal information in an ethical manner, the people should be made aware and provide their consent for you to do so.

Now the unethical argument is not to take away from the fact that the world is evidentially in a place with more terrorism and threat than seen in the past decades. With the rise in danger, it is making spying almost a necessity to try to a save a majority of people rather than focusing on invading the minorities privacy. For people who perform terrorist acts sometimes spend years in that same country they attack as normal people which can be exemplified by the Boston Marathon Bombings. Two brothers who attended school and lived in America for years, still bombed a major event in the hopes to hurt that nation. Now, if there were a focus on these two seemingly normal men prior to the bombings, there could have been a potential protective act prepared to prevent the tragedy. For a security agencies access to this seemingly excessive information has the ability to ultimately save people of their nation from a threat. Importantly, this detrimental opportunity to determine threat makes it difficult to want to put an end to something that is seen as morally incorrect. For something that is needed and likely beneficial in protecting citizens does not always have the ethical characteristic to come along with it.

 After highlighting the privacy issues citizens have with their own agencies, there is also the constant watch of alternative countries, agencies, and terrorist organizations. It is no secret that every country is watching the others, especially when there are tensions between two. For example, North Korea had put forth various threats to the United States of America including that there would be nuclear tests released unless there was a termination to the United States performing troop drills with South Korea. After a threat that is as detrimental as this, it would seem insufficient of the United States Security Organizations to not be watching and monitoring the every action of North Korea. So, this just adds another element in supporting the idea and or belief that spying is necessary, but the necessity of it can never make it ethical.

 Now that there is an emphasis on the spying that could potentially be executed-a nations own citizens, and the alternative countries and organizations-it is vital to understand how spying is performed. Essentially, what qualifies as spying? In this day and age, it is obvious that technology is a major element to the world. For a majority of data is being stored on computers, tablets, and phones rather than being physically written down and saved. Therefore, it is a common technique to hack into people’s information through something known as cyber-attacks. Through cyber-attacks, you gain access to any data gathered within the technology that was hacked. Just to represent how common a cyber-attack is, you have the ability to view a live attack map found at http://www.digitalattackmap.com/#anim=1&color=0&country=ALL&list=0&time=18091&view=map  which is representing the attacks being performed. Alternative methods of spying from intelligence agencies range from tapping telephone calls to eavesdrop on conversations to maintaining relationships with sources of information. In fact, in the following website, https://www.mi5.gov.uk/how-spies-operate , there are the multiple methods of spying that can be performed and explained. For relationships are a major factor for how successful an agent or agency is at receiving the wanted or seeked information. Agents or spies attempt at establishing networks where a source has reliable information from certain people or organizations that is highly wanted. Ultimately, cyber espionage is evidentially the most common and effective method of hoarding information especially in the current days because of how relevant technology is.

 Being aware of the actions that agents are doing is important to form your beliefs on if spying is or ever can be ethical. As seen in the previous link to Patrick Toomey’s article, https://www.aclu.org/blog/national-security/privacy-and-surveillance/nsa-continues-violate-americans-internet-privacy, the easily accessed information that spies are able to receive with the technology is violating privacy acts for individuals and other organizations. Don’t morals and ethics involve respecting other people’s rights? Don’t they protect people from being watched without consent? Shouldn’t everyone be aware of what information of theirs is being held by agencies?

 Since it is evident that the violation of privacy is what is ultimately defining spying as unethical, it is vital to consider the counterarguments of this debated topic. If ethics are relying on morals, some may say that it is morally correct to complete your job to the best of your ability, to protect the people of your nation, and to defend against future threats. All of these characteristics are what spies and or agents are hired to do. While doing your job is having morals, it does not mean your job has to be invading other people’s and nation’s information. Also, while protecting your nation is honorable and hopefully being executed, it does not belittle the fact that people’s information is constantly being monitored in this specific way of protecting. As said before, these actions are necessary and the counterarguments to spying being unethical seem to go hand and hand with the necessity of the actions that come with being an agent. On the other hand, necessities do not deem actions that are being performed to be ethical.

  An alternative counterargument may include that if one has nothing to worry about or to hide, why care what information of is being monitored? While this argument is obviously focusing more on the governmental watching from a country on its own citizens rather than country to country or organization to organization, it is still not strong enough to deem spying ethical. There is validity in the fact that one should not be so passionately against their information being accessed if they have nothing to hide, but does that make their information being monitored ethical? This argument seems to take on a more practical role in the fact that it is just belittling the security systems to make it seem normal. In other words, this arguments goal is to make people feel more comfortable about what agencies have access to rather than argue the access to be ethical.

On a different note, the intelligence agencies aim to protect against future threats and it almost seems nation to nation, organization to organization there is an eye-for-an-eye system still intact. For any nations action to receive information seems to make other areas of the world think it is obligatory to perform the same procedure. In the end, everyone is using the same methods for the benefit of themselves. A system that is based off of the aspect of “because one did this, I should do this back” seems to be unethical in and of itself. An eye-for-an-eye system is no longer used when governing a nation with laws for good reason. If we were all to still abide to that system, there would not be a focus on moral or ethical decisions, instead just on getting even with one another. Spying seems to have this mindset with the constant look and watch over which of your information has been received and how to get their information and watch them in return.

Many who ultimately agree and make the same argument that spying cannot ever be considered an ethical job or action, but believe it is still necessary have compared it to soldiers as a clever metaphor. For soldiers have to willingly protect their people, their nation by shooting humans that can range mothers to children with the thought that they’re potentially threatening the soldier’s nation or fellow militia. Similarly, to spies, without soldiers there would not be much protection or reference to how strong a country is when acknowledging the militia power or security power they obtain. Without spying, there would be no surveillance of dangerous people, dangerous events and definitely no hope to protection prior to the danger taking action. As a wise professor in philosophy states, “It seems that spies, like soldiers, are a necessary evil. As long as different nations have different interests, they will use spies. And since different nations are in various senses competing with each other, as soon as some have spies, it seems fair to acknowledge the right for others to have spies.” ( https://www.quora.com/Are-spies-ethical  ) Not only does Dr. Chris Macdonald’s argument in his response to “are spies ethical?” highlight the fact that they are necessary for protection, but also the eye-for-an-eye system previously mentioned. For one nation’s motive to have spies and unethically gain access to information is just allowing or motivating other nations to do the same. Cleverly, this professor’s response does not fail to appreciate the fact that agents and or spies are necessary for citizens, for nations, for protection, but that does not mean they are not performing an ethical job so to say.

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All in all, there are many opposing views on this topic, but it is hard to deny the fact that espionage and artificial intelligence is needed. From mass shootings to suicide bombings to terrorist organizations looking to make sure they are known with dangerous actions, there would be little to not monitoring these tragedies with out spying. It is unfortunate that the world needs to be on the lookout on one another for these reasonings in general, but clearly there have been too many massacres and it does not look hopeful that there will be less in the future. It would be unreasonable to wish agents or spies to not do their jobs as they are focused on saving the majority of people. If one were to imagine a world without these security systems, how much more damage to nations and people would be at this point?

The ultimate issue with this topic relies on the current state of the world. There is a lot of unsettled people with little amounts of peace between organizations and countries. Without peace we have seen the horrendous acts that extend to people surrendering themselves with suicide bombings just make their point of hatred. With the state of the world, how could spies ethically spy? Is it even possible? That does not seem to be an option because if there were to be consent given for information to be accessed, the evils of the world could prevent information from being found, still threaten the world, and hide what they please. If there were less tensions, less tragic acts and threats, there could potentially be a more ethical manner of spying with more communication as to what information is being accessed. Unfortunately, it is wishful thinking to make spying ethical with the dangers in the current era.

 To come to a conclusion, it is important to evaluate spying in three sections that are considered to make up ethics. Firstly, there is the virtue of ethics: how to live, which in this case is how to perform in your job. Spies seem to fail at this first characteristic of ethics due to the fact that many average people would not hope or aim to be invading privacy of others. Basically, it would be unusual for one to want to live their life intruding on privacy. Then there is the consequential aspect to ethics: is it good? Spying here does not completely fail, but also does not succeed either. For this characteristic of ethics is focused on is it making the world a better place? Is it harming people? Spying does have the potential to make the world a better place with the protection of people from dangers, but it can be considered as harming other people with the monitoring of others. In other words, spying aims to protect the some you are hired to, but it harms the people you are ultimately invading and protecting your people from. Lastly, there is the deontological characteristic of ethics: is it right? Spying in this last category seems to fail again. It is not typically right or correct to seek the information from others without consent which connects back or is parallel to the moral aspect of ethics. (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/am-i-right/201205/3-approaches-ethics-principles-outcomes-and-integrity ). Clearly, there is no way with the current state of spying to break down ethics and advantage the thought of spying being ethical.

 Despite practical counterarguments, there is no belief that considers the morals behind spying. Basically, there is no argument that refutes spying being unethical with a focus on the attributes that make up ethics. However, the counterarguments are successful in deeming spying necessary especially when it comes to protecting against situations where there is a predicted massacre. What could potentially benefit the ethics behind spying would be a system created that filters information. To be specific, when a government is watching its own citizens, there should be a system that divides information that could be potentially alarming rather than just average actions performed on civilians’ phones. With this, there would be a focus on the alarming information rather than just making every civilian feel violated for being watched for everything they do on their own technology. If this system were put into place there could potentially be a valid argument that spying is ethical because the average information gathered from citizens would be in a different data set than the ones who are deemed suspicious and need more attention or monitoring. This could be considered more morally correct in the fact that the spying would still be aiming to protect people while invading the privacy of threatening humans or organizations rather than just every person.

 While this system would seemingly be helpful to the counterarguments side, it is yet to be created or put into place despite talk of similar ideas, thus making spying incapable of being ethical in current times. There is no hope with the current state to the question of can spying ever be ethical, but maybe there could be the future if technology was used for this benefit. If one were to create a filtering system of information, there could be arguable ethical motives behind spying. To conclude, there is no option to deem spying ever being ethical, nor is there an option to wish that it be stopped. It can be referred to as an evil that unethical actions are needed, but it is also the reality of today with the state of the world. As seen in the following, https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/how-different-and-dangerous-is-terrorism-today , “modern terrorism is still evolving.” With that powerful notation that terrorism is still evolving despite already going through many phases, there is no avoiding or terminating artificial intelligence and modern espionage without serious side effects and many more lives lost.

 After dissecting this argument of spying never being ethical, but still being necessary, there should be many key points to be remembered. Firstly, that ethics focus on morals and it should never be considered morally correct to invade the privacy of other people, nations, and organizations. Secondly, that just because a system is not acting or performing ethically, does not mean it is not needed or important for nations. For the safety of people, and the prevention of danger are both major attributes that come along with the jobs of being an agent and or spy. Thirdly, that the potential counterarguments to support spying as an ethical job do not seem to achieve anything in the manner of ethics. The counterarguments are more of a practical view instead of an ethical one, but still highlight the necessity for spying in current days. Fourthly, that if a filtering system of information were to be created, spying could have the potential to respect morals more than it does now. All of these key points from this in-depth argument hopefully leave consumers with a strong understanding of modern espionage and intelligence from the necessity of it to the immorality of it. So, can spying ever be ethical? Can you convince people that spying is ethical without making a practically speaking argument? What would the state of the world be in without spying? 

Works Cited

  • “ETHICAL: Meaning in the Cambridge English Dictionary.” Cambridge Dictionary, dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/ethical.
  • Toomey, Patrick. “The NSA Continues to Violate Americans’ Internet Privacy Rights.” American Civil Liberties Union, American Civil Liberties Union, 23 Aug. 2018, www.aclu.org/blog/national-security/privacy-and-surveillance/nsa-continues-violate-americans-internet-privacy.
  • “Digital Attack Map.” Digital Attack Map, www.digitalattackmap.com/#anim=1&color=0&country=ALL&list=0&time=18091&view=map
  • “How Spies Operate: MI5 – The Security Service.” MI5 Security Service, www.mi5.gov.uk/how-spies-operate.
  • “Are Spies Ethical?” Quora, www.quora.com/Are-spies-ethical.
  • “3 Approaches to Ethics: Principles, Outcomes and Integrity.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/am-i-right/201205/3-approaches-ethics-principles-outcomes-and-integrity.
  • Wright, Robin, and Robin Wright. “How Different-and Dangerous-Is Terrorism Today?” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 10 Sept. 2017, www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/how-different-and-dangerous-is-terrorism-today.


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