Is Mass Surveillance Unethical?

5972 words (24 pages) Essay in Security

04/03/19 Security Reference this

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Surveillance is no different from the casual practice of people watching, but instead of being a casual practice that might occur at one park, or at one restaurant, mass surveillance is sustained over time, and is done on a significant number of people. This practice was put in place to pay attention not just to any random person that roams the streets, but to pay attention to a specific group of people and for a specified reason. This is what raises much controversy about the issue of mass surveillance. It does not have to involve watching, sometimes it can also be done by listening, smelling, or detective hardware. When a cellphone conversation is bugged, this is mass surveillance. When a dog is used to sniff out drugs at the border, this is mass surveillance. The ethics behind this issue have been debated time and again, but whichever point wins, it still remains to be seen that surveillance is a neutral activity whose application can be geared towards good or bad (Cohen, p25). Yet most continue to argue over the morality of the issue. As we delve into this matter, there will be specific questions that logically need to be answered in order create a proper analysis that has the capability to be brought to a final conclusion and answer. Whose responsibility is it to spy on the masses? And under which circumstances is it right to listen is? Is mass surveillance right at all? These are the questions that thus paper will explore—analyzing the two sides to the sharp edged sword that is mass surveillance.

The History of Mass Surveillance Ethics

Jeremy Bentham came up with the idea of The Panopticon- an idea that was considered among the first to contribute to the ethical debate on mass surveillance (Bentham 1995). The proposed the concept of The Panopticon – a circular prison whose cells were adjacent to the outside walls and whose center had a tower that hosted the prison manager. The work of this manager would be to watch the inmates as they went about their daily business. It would be built in such a way that the supervisor would see the inmates, but the watched could not see this supervisor at any point in time. There would also be a means of communication that allowed the supervisor on top of the tower to shout out their demands to the prisoners. The principle of the system was that these prisoners would not know they were under surveillance, but seeing as the supervisor would somehow have access to all their secrets, they would, eventually, come to assume that they were being watched and listened to at all times (Cropf, Cropf & Bagwell, p65). This would, in turn, encourage them to behave in the required manner, and in case they had visitors over, these visitors would also be discouraged from committing crimes on the behalf of the inmates.

The concept of the Panopticon does not end there. In his book, 1984, George Orwell takes this concept to a whole new level (Orwell 2004). Orwell magnified this concept to reach way beyond the inmates in Bentham’s idea. In 1984, the Panopticon took the shape of a two-way television that gave the government visual and audio access to the homes and work offices of its citizens. In the case of prisoners, these citizens would always be reminded that they were being watched. Orwell discusses both the reasons and the impact of doing something like this.

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Further exploring this issue is Michel Foucault in the book Discipline and Punish (Foucault 1991). The book explores the obvious use and abuse of power that is behind the idea of mass surveillance. He analyzes how prisons have grown from a means of punishment, to a way of punishing and disciplining offenders for their wrongs. With something like the Panopticon, Foucault argues that prisoners became like social experiments- denied their very basic freedoms in an attempt to punish and discipline them. These three references in history raised fundamental questions on the ethics of surveillance, and although their text mostly revolves around a prison setting, one cannot help but equate this concept to society such that the general population in a country become the prisoners, and the supervisor watching from the tower at the center of the Panopticon becomes the government.

Modern Surveillance

Surveillance has evolved from a primitive and a careless procedure to a carefully planned out scheme that involves more than a few parties. The technological advancements that the contemporary society so enjoys has become the very tool to be used against them. This realization has made people question the role of mass surveillance. This debate has spilled over to the field of academics where fields of study like Surveillance Studies have come up, brining jurists, sociologists, philosophers, and scientists together to examine the ethics, the science, and the reasons behind mass surveillance (Cropf, Cropf & Bagwell, p80).

Today, thanks to technology, mass surveillance has become very complex, both as a social subject and as a science. Now, people can be watched with discreteness thanks to the mobility and small size of freshly invented mass surveillance devices. Surveillance is like a wide, wild wave from the ocean that no one ever sees coming. Take the instance of CCTV (Closed Circuit Television) cameras. These devices are there to gaze and stare as people mover about daily. On the other side is an anonymous viewer that is slowly making conclusions about the way we walk, the way we talk, and the way we live. Unlike the centralized Panopticon, this type of mass surveillance is watching people on an unimaginable scale. The network behind this system transfers magnitude of information back and forth every passing minute (Fuchs, p46). The computerized society is practically exposing itself to be watched and followed around. But surveillance is here for two reasons- to stalk and probe into the private affairs of other people, or to bring forth justice. In some cases, surveillance has even been known to be accepted by the people being watched. This makes it a very ethnically neutral subject, and hence very hard to be explored. The only things left to be analyzed are the proportionality of surveillance, or the methods used to surveil, or the justification of the cause. With such concepts in mind, other smaller but equally significant issues like autonomy, trust and privacy come up in relation to ethics.

Forms of Mass Surveillance

CCTVs and databases are still used to monitor people today, but for the most part, mass surveillance is done on the internet. Communications are what are monitored these days, including the activity on our mobile devices and computers (Fuchs, p64).

Phone spying is done by geography. People in a specific area using a specific cell tower are surveilled together. There are also some cases when the government can set up fake mobile base stations so as to listen in on all the communication ongoing in a specific area, for instance, during a riot that is likely to turn violent.

The limitations of mass surveillance devices are virtually disappearing and the government can now access more information than ever. Cell phone conversations are saved by phone companies to be retrieved incase the government needs it. All this information comes with immense power. Even in our homes there is surveillance. The invention of smart devices enables companies to monitor our electricity usage, and smart cities track vehicles for miles on end using sensors and cameras (Babcock & Freivogel, p34). The legality of these devices has been documented, so the only thing that is left for us to debate on is their ethicality.

What is the Problem of Mass Surveillance?

Governments have tried to sugarcoat the situation by calling mass surveillance ‘bulk collection of communications’, but however it is phrased, it is still just mass surveillance.  The problem is that mass surveillance interferes with privacy. This point cannot be stressed enough because all surveillance devices are bent on one goal- record it all. They are created specifically to mine data, to exploit data, to draw conclusions from this data, and to try and create patters from the information if provides (Babcock & Freivogel, p53). Systems are made specifically to filter out suspicious words and to determine relationships between suspicious persons.

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Mass surveillance, at the very beginning, assumes that each and every person is a suspect. Slowly but surely, most of the population is eliminated from this bracket. People are correlated on the basis of what many be nothing more than a coincidence. Visiting the same website at the same time, or going to the same restaurant every morning for coffee- conclusions are made from the little connections that can be made. With the little details, patterns can be created and the government can have a whole idea of what an individual’s life is like. By listening to what they do, what they say, what they buy, what they eat, and where they go, law enforcement agencies can create 100 percent accurate profiled on people without these people ever knowing. With this kind of information, there is always risk. In as much as there might be very strong guidelines put in place to protect the information from abuse, there will always be the few cases that slip through the cracks (Babcock & Freivogel, p74). Mass surveillance therefore becomes a danger to the very people that it is meant to protect.

Those who end up as victims of such abuses suffer the worst mistakes of mass surveillance as the attacker usually has all the personal information anyone would need to cause harm. This is called the ‘chilling effect’ of surveillance. Sure, it is meant to protect and it does protect, but generally, mass surveillance puts people on alert. There is a difference between being watched and not being watched, most people are just too used to it to even notice, but take mass surveillance away and people will be freer to commit all sorts of acts- not necessarily criminal acts, but acts nevertheless. Ultimately, we believe that mass surveillance is there to protect us, but before we can be protected, how much do we have to give up? Our innovation? Our free imagination and free speech? Do we have to succumb to conformity just to be safe? Do we have to stand something so unethical?

The Ethics of Privacy, Autonomy and Trust

Privacy is an important this to society- it makes us feel safe, makes us feel in control again, even if just for a while. Mass surveillance is a threat to this privacy, or at least that is what most people use to make their arguments against it. Especially at the individual level, privacy is an important thing. It is called the right to privacy for a reason- it is not in the place of anyone, not even the state, to take it away from people without their consent.

This right is really a blanket policy that incorporates other minor rights within itself. There is a right to privacy of property, and there is a right to personal privacy. This right, apart from consisting of other sub-rights, does not stand on its own. The right to privacy, in this respect, ceases to be a distinct right at all. It is consisted of the right to autonomy, and other such rights. For instance, when a person disposes their diary, it is violation of their right to pick up this diary and read it. This is a violation of the right to dispose of property privately. Torturing a person so as to get certain information from them is a violation of their right not to be physically hurt (Baxi, McCrudden & Paliwala, p56).

 Yet in both these examples, there is still a violation of privacy among other rights. The definition of the right to privacy is therefore not definite. Mass surveillance cannot violate something that is not even definitely explained in the first. We are therefore forced to come up with our own definition of this right so that we can survive with the idea that we are being watched and listened to at all moments of the day.

Privacy gives us some control and some dignity. As we interact with other people, a large amount of our security and our confidence comes from our privacy. Even though we know nothing about the strangers we meet each day, we feel safe with the notion that these people don’t know anything about us. If strangers knew our weaknesses, then they might use them against us, so we feel safe knowing that no one knows anything about our private lives. But mass surveillance violates this safe zone. In mass surveillance, we are exposed to an all-seeing eye and in a way, we are made to feel as though our secrets are out in the open.

But the public has a level of dependency on the government, and in this way, it becomes okay for the state to violate our privacy for the greater good. But the more surveillance is used as an excuse to violate the privacy of the public, the more that people lose their sense of autonomy(Baxi, McCrudden & Paliwala, p76). Mass surveillance makes it so that we are not as confidence to speak in public. It entices fear because we know that any and everything we do has severe consequences. Using mass surveillance to make sure people don’t commit any crimes is like forcing them to be good, and this just increases their need for rebellion. So if the population becomes better because they are being watched, it can be argued that these actions are only pretentious, and if the mass surveillance equipment is taken away, then the public will back to its true colors. In this way, the government is also dependent on mass surveillance, and therefore it becomes unethical in such a way that it is used as a crutch for the state to control the behavior of its citizens.

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Why Surveillance?

So many people jump straight to the impact that mass surveillance has on people- no one ever really stops to ask why surveillance is installed all around them. It is a basic assumption that surveillance is for security purposes, and while this might be true, this question still needs to be explored is the ethical foundation of mass surveillance is to be determined  (Cohen, p37). Yet even as we jump to security reasons as the obvious answer this question, the degree of security devices around us is a bit too much. There is also the question of who is monitoring the footage that is recorded on all the cameras. Take the example of political insurgents- is surveilling them really going to improve the security of the state? The first thing we need to understand is that their more than a few forms of surveillance. This practice extends far beyond the CCTV cameras on our streets and in our offices- mass surveillance has roots in each and every sector of the country.

But security is not the only reason for mass surveillance. Retail stores and other companies get information on the kinds of goods that customers buy from the information on their loyalty cards- this is also a form of mass surveillance. The customers, in exchange of some discount deals of similar promotions, gladly participate in such forms of surveillance (Cohen, p57). Is this to be considered unethical? How can it be unethical when the shopping experience of these customers will be improved through their participation?

Looking at transportation, especially public transit, people can now use the subway even with no money on them. This is as a result of the invention of smart cards. Using these cards, a person’s spending can be tracked and if they get into some medical trouble when far away from home, the cards can be used to identify who they are and provide their medical history. If police officers need to establish the credibility of a suspect’s alibi, then they can simply track their credit card movements and build a profile from there. These forms of surveillance are not only beneficial, they can sometimes be essential to the well-being of people. This is in no way unethical.

Mass surveillance can be used for individual needs as well. A financially unstable computer genius might decide to use their skills to hack into a credit card company server and steal the numbers, hence taking other people’s money (Cohen, p81). The hacker is unethical, but the credit card company is not unethical for monitoring the spending of their customers. This makes mass surveillance both ethical and unethical- it all depends on how the issue is approached. For personal reasons, people might choose to exploit the mass surveillance equipment already in place to invade the privacy of others. These systems have a lot of personal information about many different people, and for this reason, they are sensitive. If used for good, mass surveillance can benefit millions, but is allowed into the wrong hands, then an unlucky few will suffer for it. Is it ethical, therefore, to allow the few to suffer for the well-being of the many? This brings up a whole other division of ethics that will take time and research to explore, but mass surveillance is not a subject to be approached in black and white. There are issues of distribution- who gets to suffer and who gets to live if a specific instance of mass surveillance goes wrong? There is the issue of consent. Supermarket customers have to agree to participate in promotions that monitor their spending and the kind of goods they buy, but criminals being investigated are denied to right to consent to privacy intrusion, and the law has no obligation to them as long as they are suspects (Cohen, p87). There is a concept of the greater good involved here, and for the few that have to fall victim to the dark side of mass surveillance, one million others get to live. Is this justified? No. but neither is it unjustified.

Who is in Charge?

As the party being watched loses autonomy and power, the surveilling party gains more power and control. The information that most people would rather keep to themselves is known- it is out there in the public and the chances of it circulating even further are higher. There is a power imbalance between the masses and the people that are in charge of mass surveillance. In this context, surveillance becomes wrong, almost like a primitive form of intimidation. It becomes unethical and very dangerous for all the parties involved. Everyone, no matter how insignificant, is entitled to certain basic rights. These are such as the right to freely speak, the right to interact with other people, and the right to freely protest against that which one finds distasteful. These rights are law and are preached to all citizens every waking day, but with mass surveillance, they become less equated to human rights and become more equated to evidence (Pandey, p24). If there is a record of a person speaking freely for or against certain beliefs they have, then thus record can be used against them if they are ever suspected of committing a crime. People, therefore, decide to stay low and only speak in the shadows, for the state holds all the power.

When it comes to a point when a person’s rights are no longer their own, then mass surveillance is considered to have crossed the ethical line. The simplest democratic practices are hindered by cameras and such monitoring devices. What is the point of giving away privileges only to use them against the very people that are supposed to be protected by these privileges?

There is also the question of distance. The surveilling team is literally on the other side of the screen- adding to the power imbalance between the authorities and the masses (Pandey, p32). This gives a sense of two very different parties where one in pulling the strings and the other party has to adhere to all the rules or there will be consequences. People are spied upon, denied basic rights, and made to feel powerless. In this way, mass surveillance becomes unethical, even though it is used to protect these very people.

Nothing to Hide

There is a famous statement, “if you haven’t done anything wrong, then there is nothing to fear.” This statement has long been used to justify the ethics of surveillance. If the public has nothing to hide, then they have nothing to fear even if the government pricks and probes at the most private details of their lives. Looking at it carefully, however, it does make sense. Majority of the people have no criminal records, nor do they have any intention of committing any crimes in the future. In this sense, mass surveillance does not affect them in any way. Surveillance is only meant to catch the bad few and make the lives of others safer in the process. In this reasoning, the government has installed cameras, wiretaps, and record checks almost everywhere. Citizens are convinced that all this effort is for their own good, and once the terrorists have been eliminated, it will have been worth it. But the bad guys never quit, and every waking morning, the government finds new ways to get more information- both in quantity and in depth. It is true that mass surveillance makes it safer for the majority, but this does not make it ethical (Bishop, Miloslavskaya & Theocharidou,  p51).

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If the government mandated every citizen to walk around with a tracking device in an effort to advance mass surveillance, then it would make sense that anyone who refused to do so has something to hide and should be investigated further. But it can also be argued that such measures are simply wrong and in violation of most forms of privacy. So if most people refuse to willingly submit to the will of government and give themselves up to be examined, then it does not necessarily mean that these people are criminals, it just means that they value their privacy more than their security- or something like that.

Yet, with the modern advancements in technology, the government can already track people even when they are not carrying any tracking devices on them. People can be tracked using their credit card actions, or using cameras that are lodged on every street corner(Bishop, Miloslavskaya & Theocharidou,  p74). These movements, however, can only be tracked to a certain extent. In this way, a person is able to be kept safe and they are also able to maintain their privacy. Yet this is not any better that if the government forcefully implemented a law that mandated everyone to carry around a tracking device. Both actions are invasive, and thus both actions are wrong, and just because one is more invasive than the other does not make the latter action any less unethical.

There is also the issue of storage. After the information has been collected from the public, it is stored in archives that are vulnerable to hackers. There are people capable of accessing this information and using it to harm and not to protect. This puts the whole argument against the use of mass surveillance to watch the public. For instance, back in 2007, a worker from the Department of Commerce, Benjamin Robinson, accessed a government database and used the information within it to track the movements of his former girlfriend. He accessed this system at least 163 times before he was discovered, an if it had continued for any longer, then the girl that was being tracked could have ended up in real danger (Bishop, Miloslavskaya & Theocharidou,  p85). This man was unethical in his actions, but so was the government for collecting personal information and storing it in such a way that it could be accessed more than 100 times before any red flags were raised.

When to use Mass Surveillance

So when exactly is mass surveillance ethical? Would it be ethical when we are invaded and it is the only way that the invaders can be flushed out? Would it be ethical if the data collected in the devices is not used against the people that are supposed to be protected by the surveillance systems? There are lines that should not be crossed, the only problem is that these lines are not clear. According to M.I.T. Professor Gary Marx, there are a number of questions that need to be answered before mass surveillance can be implemented anywhere.

Means

The first issue that needs to be explored is the means of mass surveillance being used. Does it cause any sort of harm to the public, be it physical or psychological? Does the surveillance method have boundaries? The technique used should not be allowed to cross a certain line without consent of the party being surveilled. The techniques being used also needs to be trustworthy. The personal information of the people being surveilled should be kept safe and it should not be used against them. Is the method invasive to personal relationships? Lastly, the means used to enforce mass surveillance needs to produce results as they were- the results should be valid and not doctored in any way (Berleur & Whitehouse. P42).

Context

The second issue that has to be explored to justify mass surveillance is that of data collection context. Those being surveilled need to be aware that personal information is being collected on them, and they need to know who is collecting this information and why they are collecting it. These individuals need to agree to be surveilled- consent is a key issue. And then comes the golden rule- those that are responsible to setting up and implementing surveillance also need to be its subjects. In short, everyone, even government officials, need to agree to the same conditions that everyone else agrees to. Mass surveillance should indeed look out for the masses- no exceptions. For it to be ethically justifiable at all, then a certain principle of minimization needs to be enforced.

Mass surveillance also has to be decided by the public. To come to the decision of setting up surveillance, a discussion has to be held publicly and people have to decide for or against it. If they decide to go through with it, then there needs to be a human review of the machines and the equipment that are to be used. The people that decide to be surveilled are also entitled to inspect the results of this surveillance and question how the results were created and how they are going to be used. They also have a right to challenge the records in case any obvious errors are made with the surveillance results (Berleur & Whitehouse. P62).

Before mass surveillance can be allowed to function in society, then there needs to be a means of redress. In case any individual is treated unjustly because of surveillance, then there should be appropriate punishments in place for the perpetrator of the crime so as to phase out unethical surveillance behavior. The data collected needs to be protected adequately so as to avoid any unethical use of this information in the first place. Mass surveillance methods need to have very minimal negative effects, or preferable, no negative effects at all. Lastly, mass surveillance needs to be equal. The same methods used on the middle class need to be used on the upper class, and is there is a way of resisting mass surveillance, then the government needs to make sure that these methods are available to the privileged as well as to the less privileged (Berleur & Whitehouse. P69). If even one person can escape mass surveillance, then all the other members of the public have no business being watched by the government.

Uses

The final issue that has to be analyzed is that of the uses of the data that is collected from mass surveillance devices. Surveillance needs to have a certain goal- whether it is to improve the shopping experience of customers, or to reduce crime rate. The data collected needs to be useful in fulfilling this goal, otherwise, there is no point. In as much as the goal needs to be fulfilled, there also needs to be a perfect balance between fulfilling this goal and spending just the right amount of money- not too much for it to be wasteful, and not too little for the surveillance to bear worthless results. Before surveillance is implemented, the responsible party needs to make sure there is no other means that will cost less money and fulfill the same duties (Berleur & Whitehouse. P87). If it is too costly, then are there any consequences of not installing surveillance equipment, and if so, to what extent will these consequences affect society? How can the cost and the risk be minimized? The information collected needs to be used only for its intended purposes only and nothing more.

Therefore, mass surveillance can be ethical, but it also has a large capacity to be unethical. Following this guideline, mass surveillance should be installed with no problems and with no major violations of any kind. However this issue is approached, there will always be a basic violation of privacy that is associated with surveillance, but the damage is controllable as long as the public consents to it. there needs to be appropriate measures and guidelines put in place before using any form of mass surveillance on a population, and these guidelines need to be adhered to by all the involved parties- be it the party surveilling, or the party being surveilled.

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How do we make Surveillance Ethical?

There is a lot of fuss about mass surveillance. We should never stop discussing the underlying issues on mass surveillance, but we should also give the government a chance to prove that mass surveillance is truly for the good of the public and not just some scheme to keep citizens in check. Mass surveillance attempts to do the impossible- keep people safe while also maintaining an open and free society with people who are not afraid to express their views. Amidst all these issues, the question of how to make mass surveillance more ethical is often overlooked, but there is truly a way in which we can make sure that mass surveillance is justified and only in the best interest of the masses.

For mass surveillance to be ethical, there needs to be a reason for it. Secretively spying on people without them knowing why or how is why surveillance is considered unethical, but approaching these people from a logical standpoint and explaining to them why mass surveillance is necessary is in every way ethical (Duquenoy, Jones & Blundell, p38).

For surveillance to be ethical, there also needs to be transparency. This means that there should be integrity of motive- no secret agendas. Right from the way the data is collected to the way it is handled and used, there needs to complete honesty between the parties involved.

The methods used need to be analyzed for proportionality, there must be laws put in place to protect the interests of those being surveilled, and lastly, there needs to be a clear prospect for success if mass surveillance is to be carried on for a long period of time (Duquenoy, Jones & Blundell, p78).

Conclusion

So, is mass surveillance unethical? Yes it is, and no, it is not. This is one of those issues that has to be examined in context. If a criminal hacks into the surveillance system of a particular government and uses it to commit a major crime, then this criminal is wrong, but this still does not make mass surveillance unethical. The justification and ethicality of mass surveillance are often treated as one subject, and in as much as they may overlap, they are quite different. For instance, it is justified for a government to put up cameras to protect the many while they focus on the few bad apples that are likely to commit crimes, but it is unethical that this same government is intruding the privacy of so many people just to catch a few criminals. In the same way, it is unethical to listen in on a cell phone conversation of a suspect in a criminal investigation, but if this person ends up being convicted because of the conversation, then it becomes justified, and to some extent, also ethical.

If we go back to the basics, parents have to monitor their children in order for these infants to survive. In this context, the infants are viewed as powerless, helpless, and in need of constant care and attention. It is therefore the parent’s responsibility, both ethically and morally, to be there for their child. After these children grow, they become independent and are no longer in need of constant attention. These children start to pull away from their parents and seek out their own privacy. The same knowledge can be applied to the issue of mass surveillance. The public can be seen as children who have grown over time and earned the right to their own privacy, and yet the government persists on monitoring them constantly (Cohen, p85). In the public consents to this surveillance, then it becomes ethically justifiable for mass surveillance to continue, but without the public’s consent to surveillance, then it becomes wrong and an intrusion of privacy.

Work cited

Cropf, Robert A, Robert A Cropf, and Timothy C Bagwell. Ethical Issues And Citizen Rights In The Era Of Digital Government Surveillance. 1st ed. Print.

Cohen, E. Mass Surveillance And State Control. 1st ed. [Place of publication not identified]: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Print.

Gamino Garcia, Arkaitz et al. Mass Surveillance. 1st ed. [Brussels]: [European Commission], 2015. Print.

Pandey, Archit. An Introduction To Mass Surveillance And International Law. 1st ed. Print.

Baxi, Upendra, Christopher McCrudden, and Abdul Paliwala. Law’s Ethical, Global And Theoretical Contexts. Essays In Honour Of William Twining. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. Print.

Babcock, William A, and William H Freivogel. The SAGE Guide To Key Issues In Mass Media Ethics And Law. 1st ed. Print.

Berleur, J, and Diane Whitehouse. An Ethical Global Information Society. 1st ed. London: New York, 1997. Print.

Law’s Ethical, Global, And Theoretical Contexts. 1st ed. Cambridge University Press, 2015. Print.

Bishop, Matt, Natalia Miloslavskaya, and Marianthi Theocharidou. Information Security Education Across The Curriculum. 1st ed. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2015. Print.

Duquenoy, Penny, Simon Jones, and Barry Blundell. Ethical, Legal And Professional Issues In Computing. 1st ed. Australia: Thomson, 2008. Print.

Fuchs, Christian. Internet And Surveillance: The Challenges Of Web 2.0 And Social Media. 1st ed. New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.

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