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Living In A Surveillance Society Information Technology Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Information Technology
Wordcount: 5425 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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To say we are consciously or unconsciously sleep walking into surveillance society is a question of fact because frankly speaking individuals in society go through some form of surveillance. The security attached to surveillance allows individuals embrace it and sometimes with the knowledge of risks that come with being watched meanwhile others walk into a surveillance society without any knowledge of such dangers.

1.2 Judging from past and present events reported in several cases, journals and articles about the benefits and dangers that accompany a surveillance society, I am of the opinion that there is a need to analyse the concept of a surveillance society to ascertain if the concerns of the Information Commissioner are justified or not.

1.3 This essay would surround different issues in relation to a surveillance society such as individual privacy, data protection, laws that provide for data protection, different forms of surveillance and surveillance technologies with a view to providing some clarity regarding the concerns of the commissioner on the concept of a surveillance society.

2.0 Surveillance

2.1 Definition of surveillance

Surveillance is viewed ‘as having information about one’s movement and activities recorded by technologies on behalf of the organisations and governments that structured our society’. [1] Surveillance was also defined as ‘a purposeful routine, systematic and focused attention paid to personal details for the sake of control, entitlement, management, influence or protection’. [2] 

In my opinion, to be under surveillance means that almost every aspect of an individual’s life is been watched, monitored and controlled by others who consider themselves superior and thereby deny people of their right to privacy and control of different aspects of their lives.

Professor Ian J.Lloyd, referring to Alan Westin’s seminar work on ‘Information Technology in a Democracy’ identified three types of surveillance as:

“physical, psychological and data surveillance” [3] 

Physical surveillance involves the watching and monitoring of acts of individuals in a society and can be carried out with or without the use of surveillance technologies. The use of spies, spooks and acts of security agencies fall within the above and is applied to limited individuals.

Psychological surveillance involves the use of surveillance technologies to monitor the activities of individuals in a society by the use of interrogations.

Furthermore, data surveillance involves the use of one’s personal information to monitor their activities. Due to technology compliance by countries, ‘dataveillance’ is the most prominent form of surveillance used which is supported by electronic devices.

2.2 Living in a surveillance society

The idea of a surveillance society springs from the fears of the government and people as regards the reoccurring threats to lives of individuals based on past events like terrorism, fraud, armed robbery and shop lifting. In finding solutions to these problems, certain measures and forms of surveillance were introduced to provide security, and whether these solutions are appropriate, remains a question as there might be more invasive answers which result to an individual’s right to privacy and anonymity being infringed. Focus should reflect the attainment of social goals rather than living in the shadow of the consequence of a surveillance society. [4] 

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The United Kingdom (UK)is an example of a country that is fully compliant with the idea of a surveillance society because almost every aspect of their lives starting from taking a walk on the streets, driving their cars, going shopping in the supermarkets, going to the hospital and even in their work place they are under surveillance and this is so because the UK is a highly technologically developed country with access to lots of surveillance technologies used to monitor the activities in the life of their citizens and the UK has been described as the most surveyed country with more CCTV cameras but the irony is that it still has loose laws on privacy and data protection.

In Britain there are about 4.2 million CCTV cameras, one for every fourteen people, meaning that an individual’s activities can be captured by over three hundred cameras a day. Reporters claim Britain has the biggest DNA data base with over a million innocent peoples data on, with some being aware and others in the dark and with the advent of new and improved modern surveillance technologies being introduced individuals will be subjected to even more surveillance than they are going through today. [5] 

A surveillance society is not a totally bad concept as it has its advantages and disadvantages. Its advantages include provision of security and protection of people from computer hackers, terrorists, threats to public security, provides speed and enhances co-ordination [6] .

Consequent upon the pros of a surveillance society, the greatest negative effect of a surveillance society is the threat to privacy of individuals, though we seem to be more concerned with our fears and in the process over look the possibility that being fully dependent on surveillance technologies for safety could end up being of more harm to us than good. Surveillance creates lack of trust and raises suspicion between citizens, citizens and the state, thereby heightening the need for us to control and monitor our activities.

2.3 Surveillance Technologies

There are different kinds of surveillance technologies that are used in our society today which can also be summarized under the different forms of surveillance. Some examples of surveillance technologies includes as follows:

(a) Video surveillance i.e. the use of Closed-circuit Televisions (CCTV)

(b) Telecommunications surveillance

(c) Biometrics

(d) Shop Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags

(e) Loyalty cards

(f) Internet cookies

(g) Data Flows

(h) Locating, Tracking Tagging Technologies

(I) London Oyster Cards e.t.c

Video Surveillance

This is considered the most popular kind of surveillance technology used in a surveillance society because the use of CCTV cameras enable the capturing of images of individuals who go about their activities with the aim of preventing crime. CCTV cameras are devices that have actively been used in Britain to watch people and as such it has been predicted by experts that by the year 2009, 642 million pounds would have been spent on video surveillance software as against the 147million pounds spent in 2004 in a bid to reducing the crime rate. [7] 

Telecommunications surveillance

This involves the use of technical equipments such as Global Positioning System (GPS), tapping of phones by the police or security services and it involves the exchange of data and information which is enabled by large scale digital and computing systems such as the internet.

Biometrics Surveillance

Biometrics is another very common surveillance technology being used today in most organizations, embassies and airports. This form of identification includes body trace e.g. fingerprints, iris scans, facial topography and hand scans which are all used on different passports and I.D card systems. Biometrics has been predicted to cause UK a healthy sum of 4.7 billion industry in 2009 which initially in the year 2003 cost 675 million and this is so because of the creation of more sophisticated surveillance technologies like smart cameras to iris identification, all with the belief that there will be accuracy in identification and crime will be reduced. [8] 

Radio Frequency Identification Technologies (RFID)

It involves the use of radio frequency communications as a way to track goods as they move through the supply chain. RFID are embedded into products, pallets and cases thereby enabling the RFID readers read information from those tags [9] .

Data flows Surveillance

This is a very sensitive form of surveillance as it is gathered by surveillance technologies and it flows around computer networks and has been described by ‘Clarke R ‘as ‘dataveillance’

which is ‘the systematic use of personal data systems in the investigation or monitoring of the actions of one or more persons’ [10] .In most circumstances of data subjects consents to giving their data, but what now happens in a situation whereby the data is transferred elsewhere and there is no idea as to where the data goes by either the public or data sharing agencies. In such a case one tends to wonder if we can say we have confidence in the state as regards the safety of our data.

With the use of these technologies you can see that in a surveillance society our lives can be monitored entirely as everything you do has one form of surveillance technology which can be used to track you. Some of these technologies include Global Positioning System(GPS) which can be use in tracking your precise location, loyalty cards which can be use to determine your capacity in shopping and as such marketers know how to target a customer based on his or her spending habits and even the internet can be monitored because every individual leaves trails when browsing the internet and this trails are called ‘cookies’ which are left on a user’s machine thereby recognizing when visits were made to that site thereby making the activities of user traceable [11] .

There are also non-technological means of surveillance of surveillance which we practice as individuals in the society such as eavesdropping, watching, use of human spies and many others [12] . But these methods due to the advent of technology and modernity are gradually fading away because they are looked upon as ineffective compared to technological mediums. This is because surveillance technologies provide faster means of security, safety and certainty.

We are left with the concern of how effective surveillance technologies are to our lives and to what extent can we say that they have made a positive impact on our lives than the negative ones.

2.4 The Negative and Positive Impact of Surveillance on our society.

A surveillance society has its negative and positive impacts on our lives as individuals in the society but the negatives impacts are greater than the positive ones. Surveillance society has a way of setting traps for individuals in a society and this trap includes:

(a)Thinking that surveillance is a product of new technologies and

(b)Thinking of surveillance as a malign plot hatched by evil powers. [13] 

Ones an individual’s looks at the concept of a surveillance society in this light then it is easy for one to fall into the trap of a surveillance society and the dangers that it poses to how lives.

Apart from a sense of security, safety, minimum amount of risks, swift flow of goods, people and information which we as individuals believe are the positive effects of surveillance on our lives, what other way can we really say that a surveillance society has improved our lives or limited the risks and dangers we go through every day because irrespective of all the different forms of surveillance both technological and non-technological, It has not kept us out of harm’s way. The presence of CCTV cameras in the UK has not reduced the level of crime as terrorist still find means of operating and planning attacks. More so, individual personal data are still being used against them and all thanks to surveillance.

Surveillance creates room for suspicion and lack of trust in the society because why should employers feel there is a need to monitor the affairs of their employees by bugging their cell phones, putting tracking devices in their company vehicles, storage of employees personal data, making them undertake certain medical tests and answering personal questions about their lives which could be used against them in the future.

Surveillance exposes individuals in a society to harm as we may not know who is watching us and what purpose our data is being used for because in the UK and the world at large, we still do not have updated data protection laws that would secure our database from unauthorized access or leakage and therefore leaving us in harm’s way if our personal data was to fall into the hands of the wrong person because those watching us could pose a threat to us, instead of providing us with security.

Surveillance encourages social discrimination relating to race and ethnicity as sometimes our personal data is used to determine the level of benefits we get in the society.

Surveillance encourages deceit, dishonesty and function creep in the sense that the data controllers tell the people that they need their data for a particular purpose and end up using such data for another purpose. Also surveillance technologies help marketers to manipulate customers data in the sense that the use of ‘Loyalty Cards’ which is common in the UK helps producers to monitor the resources of a customer by their shopping habits and as such they come up with ways to direct marketing to that customer in order to make profits and this is wrong.

Another negative effect of a surveillance society which I consider to be the most crucial is the infringement of one’s right to privacy and the total loss of an individual’s anonymity in the society. Privacy is a fundamental right of every individual in a society but you find that in a surveillance society, it is not possible for one to exercise that right because everywhere you go, you can’t be anonymous because cameras are watching in the streets and as such the whole idea of privacy and anonymity has been defeated.

The above effects of surveillance are more negative than positive and much more has to be done to grant us more confidence that our society is safe.

3.0 The Right to Privacy In Relation to a Surveillance Society

3.1 What is Privacy?

The concept of Privacy in relation to a surveillance society is of paramount importance because an individual’s privacy in society is a constitutional right which should not be infringed.

One cannot talk about a surveillance society without the issue of privacy. Privacy and surveillance cannot co-exist together without one being a hindrance to the other. A surveillance society cannot function without crossing the path of privacy while privacy cannot be secured in a surveillance society, which poses a dilemma to individuals because we are left with two options which are:

(a)Choose Surveillance and forego your privacy and

(b)Choose your Privacy and live with the possibility of being exposed to danger and risks at any time

With these options, whatever choice will make us prone to loosing something important to our lives.

3.2 Definitions of Privacy

Privacy was defined by Judge Cooley in the year 1888 as ‘The right to be left alone ‘ [14] . Privacy has also been defined by some writers as:

‘The right of the individual to be protected against intrusion into his personal life or affairs or those of his family, by direct physical means or by publication of information’ [15] 

Privacy is very important to individuals in the sense that it is the only form of dignity and pride individuals have. Therefore laws need to protect this right, otherwise people in a surveillance society will become ‘puppets’ who have no control as to how their personal data and information is used and manipulated by the ‘Puppet masters’.

Article 8 of the Fundamental Human Rights and Freedoms (Convention), 1985 provides which was ratified by the Council of Europe provides that:

” (1) Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.

(2)There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interest of national security, public safety of economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health morals or for the protection of the rights of freedoms of others.” [16] 

This convention as of that year was not a confirmed law and its provisions could only be confirmed in European Courts and because UK was a signatory for the Council of Europe, the Convention applied to the UK but in 1998 the Human Rights Acts (HRA) was enacted in the UK and were incorporated into the UK law and a more recent Law was enacted in 2000 in charter (7) of the Fundamental rights of the European Union which provided for right to privacy in respect to modern day communication.” [17] 

3.3 Issues of Privacy in Relation to a surveillance society

A surveillance society is a huge area of contention in relation to privacy in the sense that it affects every aspect of an individual’s life.

Eric Barendt ,Described the fight between surveillance and privacy as (‘Political’) he said: ‘prominent figures mostly politicians, celebrities, members of the royal family are trying to protect their lives from media scrutiny meanwhile on the other hand the press which is surveillance in this case is fighting to retain their liberty of publication’ [18] 

He was also of the view that ‘privacy is a fundamental human right that should not be

Infringed on either by the government, business, individual or the media” [19] 

As individuals in a surveillance society we need to have the right to preserve our privacy but if our actions keep on being monitored by technological or non-technological means of surveillance, it will leave a trail which can be traced back to us. Also, the fact that our personal data is constantly being transferred from one data base to another and processed by different processors makes access to our personal information easy.

In the case of R v Brown [20] , Lord Hoffman in his judgement stated:

“Privacy which is the right to keep oneself to our self, to tell other people that certain things are none of their business is under technological threat due to the different and various types of surveillance e.g. surveillance cameras, telephone bugs, which are used by individuals in the society today”. [21] 

Also in the case of Leander v Sweden [22] , Mr Torsten Leander was denied employment as a result of his personal information which was held in a register and was revealed to his employer without knowledge of the kind of information that was kept about him and for what purpose it will be used and this constituted a breach of his right to privacy provided for in Article 8 (1) Fundamental Human Rights and Freedoms (Convention).

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In the case of Campbell v Mirror Group Newspapers [23] , taking pictures of Miss Campbell outside the “Nacortics Anonymous”, breached her right to privacy when her photos were published. She appealed on the grounds of breach of confidence by the media and which is one of her fundamental human right and against the provisions of the Data protection Act (1998). The court of appeal was against the verdict of the case but on appeal the House of Lords passed judgement in her favour which also gave rise to other opinions concerning the extent to which ones privacy can be said to have been breached.

In the case of Craxi v Italy, it was established that there was indeed an infringement of Article 8 of the European convention on human rights, though Mr. Craxi was guilty of committing certain offences, it was held that:

‘the state failed to provide safe custody of the transcripts of telephone conversation which Were presented as evidence before the court and to subsequently carry out an effective Investigation as to how those private communications were released into public domain” [24] 

Privacy is gradually becoming lost in our society irrespective of the different Laws that have been established in our society, we can’t honestly say that they protect our personal information from the dangers of a surveillance society such as globalization, the internet and the continuous invention of new technologies by virtue of new discoveries.


A society cannot exist without laws and supervisory authorities that would regulate the actions and behaviours of individuals. In a surveillance society, there is a great need for laws and bodies to be established in other to oversee and supervise the way our personal data is being used because without people watching those who process our data, there is a risk of danger to us as our information could be manipulated and used against us if it were to fall into wrong hands. Blackmail by criminals and discrimination to our person could result where medical data about an individual who has “HIV” or other deadly diseases was to leak, as the person could be subject to social discrimination and stigmatisation.

As a result of this, different countries have supervisory authorities who possess some powers to ensure that our privacy is protected in a surveillance society. Article 28 (1) and (2) of the data protection Directive provides for the establishment of these supervisory authorities and their powers. In the UK we have the information commissioner meanwhile other member countries except Germany have a single supervisory authority who supervise the affairs of their personal data. [25] 

Different Laws have been enacted and put in place in our society today so as to make sure that our personal information is protected but these laws have their strengths and weaknesses and cannot be relied on completely by individuals in a surveillance society. Most of this law are guided by some basic principles such as:

(a)Personal data must be processed fairly and lawfully.

(b)Personal data should not be use for any purpose other than the purpose it was

obtained for.

(c)Personal data must be accurate and kept up to date.

(d)An individual must be informed of when personal data about them is collected.

(e)The purpose for which personal data was obtained should be stated.

(f)The consent of the individual must be obtained before obtaining their personal


(g)Individuals must be told how their data will be protected from misuse.

(I)Individuals should be told how they can access their data and should be able to verify

its accuracy and request changes where necessary [26] .

The above represent the basic fair information principles (FIP) that regulate the control of our personal data in a surveillance society. These principles exist side by side with some laws in controlling the use of our data. Some of these laws include:

(1)European Data Protection Directive 95/46/EC.

(2)Data Protection Act 1998.

(3)Regulation of investigatory powers Act 2000.

(4)Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act 2001.

(5)The Council of Europe Convention.

(6)OECD 1980 Laws.

(7)Telecommunications Directive (97/66/EC).

(8) Electronic communications Act 2000.

4.1 Data Protection Act (1998)

The need of data protections laws arouse out of the growing use of computers in the 1970s and the threat to personal privacy that rapid manipulation of data posed and as a result data was made easily accessible from many different points. Computer technology makes it possible for data to be transferred from one data base to another by data controllers and processors such as employers, companies, government agencies and so on and data subjects most of the time are not aware of the purpose for which their personal data is being used. [27] 

Schedule 1 of the Act provides for the principles of data protection, schedule 2 provides for all personal data and schedule 3 provides only for sensitive personal data.

The Act defined ‘personal data’ in section 1 as ‘data which relate to a living individual who can be identified from those data or from those data which are under procession of or is likely to come into the possession of the data controller’ [28] .

It also provides in section 2 for ‘sensitive personal data’ which is ‘personal data consisting of information as to racial or ethnic origin, sexual life, mental health, religious beliefs’ [29] 

The Act is a regulatory law that is recognised by the UK and as such section 6 [30] of the Act provides for the Office of the Information Commissioner and the tribunal and their powers as supervisory authorities with regards to our personal data and this Act applies to the United Kingdom (UK) and any other (EEA) state by virtue of section 5 of this act [31] 

The Act also provides data subjects with some rights in order to protect their personal data such as:

Right to access of our personal data

Right to be informed of our personal data and the purpose for which they are used

Right of rectification and erasure of data when it appears incorrect e.t.c

Schedule 1 of the Data protection Act (1998) provided for eight principles which data controllers and processors are to apply when handling our personal data which is in conformity with the fair information principles mentioned above.


The OECD guidelines were adopted in 1980 on the protection of privacy and trans-border data flows of personal data. It comprised of 24 countries throughout the world and including the U.S and it was enacted to harmonize national privacy legislation and uphold human rights and prevent interruptions in international flows of data.

The OECD 1980 guidelines include:

(1)Collection limitation: There should be limits to the collection of personal data and it should be obtained by lawful means with the consent of the data subject where necessary

(2)Data quality principle states that personal data should be relevant for the purposes in which they are used and should be accurate and up to date.

(3)Purpose specification: The purpose for which the data was collected must be specified

(4)Security safeguards principle for example loss, unauthorized access, destruction and so on should be observed.

(5)Openness Principle

(6)Individual participation principle

(7)Accountability principle: A data controller should be accountable for complying with measures which give effect to the principles stated above

(8) Use limitation principle: Personal data should not be disclosed, made available or used for purposes other than those specified except with the consent of the data subject or the law. [32] 

4.3 Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act (2001)

This law was established to reduce the level of terrorism and crime and to provide for the retention of communications data and for many other connected purposes. This law is issued by the secretary of the state who from time to time can revise a code of practise in relation to the retention of communications providers of communications data obtained by and held by them in other to safeguard national security and prevent crime by virtue of section102 (1),(2) and (3) of the Act. [33] 

Judging from our analysis of a few laws, reports have shown that these privacy laws are not efficient enough to safeguard our privacy and personal data in a surveillance society. Other measures of regulation include:

(1)Self regulation by the use of codes to regulates their conduct [34] 

(2)Privacy enhancing technologies (PET) [35] 

(3) Individual s


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