ETHICAL ANALYSIS OF NEWS ISSUE
a. Brief Explanation of the Ethical Issue
The most prevalent issue that has achieved significant coverage in the news over the past few years is the ethics of mass surveillance. Mass surveillance refers to the practice of governments using technology such as electronic equipment to monitor individuals or groups of individuals in order to identify security threats and be in a position to respond adequately (Deflem, 2008 p. 13). As such, mass surveillance entails sustained monitoring of individuals and groups, watching their movements and listening to their conversations for purposes of maintaining security (Deflem, 2008 p. 15). As evidenced by Wintour and Travis’ article The Guardian, one of the UK’s leading newspapers, issue of mass surveillance has taken centre stage of national security processes in recent years. The article titled “UK government to rush through emergency surveillance legislation” forms the basis of this analysis.
In the last decade, governments have intensified their efforts to enhance mass surveillance for their populations amidst major public security concerns. As such, the practice of mass surveillance has opened a new industry that is global and has employed many people and benefits many firms in the security sector. Similarly, the amount of information and data in the world has grown immensely since the turn of the century. In order to manage such data and related intelligence for the purposes of maintain security, most governments in the West have embarked on expanding their mass surveillance programs. In the United Kingdom, for instance, the need for mass surveillance was enhanced through the introduction of emergency surveillance legislation in Britain in 2014 (Wintour and Travis, 2014). The emergency legislation sought to expand the mandate of the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters located in in Cheltenham with regard to accessing data shared by individuals on the internet and mobile phones whenever necessary.
The ethics of mass surveillance focuses on analysing the moral aspects of how the surveillance is conducted. Essentially, the ethical analysis of mass surveillance examines whether it is a value-neutral process that can be used for the good or even bad of the society (Wintour and Travis, 2014). It also examines whether mass surveillance is inherently bad as well as providing the basis for making such conclusions. Furthermore, the ethics of mass surveillance helps to unravel important issues such as the benefits and harms of the practice, the individuals or entities entitled to conduct mass surveillance and the specific circumstances where it is appropriate.
Therefore, the main ethical concerns in mass surveillance include issues such as privacy, trust and autonomy, the cause, purpose or need for the surveillance, justification of the surveillance, its necessity and the means through which it should be implemented.
b. Key Facts and Assumptions
Several assumptions and facts have a bearing on the analysis of the ethics of mass surveillance in the UK. One major fact for consideration is that there have been concerns for security across the world with increased acts of terrorism. Terrorists thrive on gathering intelligence information about their targets before striking (Hier & Greenberg, 2007 p. 56). Therefore, they communicate with their sympathizers on the ground, communicate with many people via the internet and mobile phones. This, coupled with other concerns for national and international security, has created a dire need for improved security systems. One of the ways the government finds it necessary to counter terrorism is intercepting communication between terrorists and their ground men or sympathizers. Mass surveillance enables the government structures to access information they deem important for preventing insecurity.
The other important fact to consider is that new forms of communication technology have made it difficult for the government to manage national security (Hier & Greenberg, 2007 p. 62). With the popularity of the internet and new media such as social media networks as well as mobile phone communication the reality of globalization has sunk in. therefore, the government needs to upgrade its security management systems to accommodate the vast amounts of data and intelligence information shared among people via the new forms of media. Through mass surveillance, the government can be in a position to apprehend security challenges in good time and secure its citizens.
However, besides the crucial facts discussed above, one assumption that needs to be taken into consideration is that mass surveillance is meant for the public good. Mass surveillance should only be implemented if there is indeed a good course for promoting public good such as enhancing their security (Hier & Greenberg, 2007 p. 73). If the surveillance is conducted for any other purposes other than promoting public good, then the whole surveillance system will be flawed.
Furthermore, it will be assumed that the government works in consultation as well as in partnership with several other interested parties in providing mass surveillance. For instance, the government needs to incorporate elements such as human rights issues, privacy concerns, the interests of the business community and investors amongst other issues. These partnerships and consultations are aimed at enhancing public trust for the mass surveillance programs the government implements.
c. A Utilitarian Perspective
Utilitarianism is an ethical theoretical framework for determining the morality of action or a decision. The theory provides a basis upon which one can judge an action as right or wrong. From a utilitarian perspective, actions are can be judged as right or wrong solely based on their outcomes or consequences (Quinn, 2012 p. 28). Therefore, an action can be considered right if it results in the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people. As such, utilitarianism focuses on maximizing the general welfare or wellbeing of individuals. The concept of maximizing the utility or wellbeing of humans implies resulting in the greatest amount of happiness or pleasure to the most people (Quinn, 2012 p. 29). Therefore, utilitarianism places the interests of other people, the recipients of one’s actions, at the epicentre of determining the morality of an action.
The utilitarian perspective can be very useful in determining the morality of mass surveillance as exercised by the government of the UK. Therefore, it is important to determine some of the positive as well as the negative impacts of mass surveillance to the citizens who are the recipients of the actions (Quinn, 2012 p. 33). If it results in the greatest amount of happiness, benefits, or good, then mass surveillance will be deemed to be a moral issue.
There are several positive consequences that are associated with mass surveillance for citizens in the UK. One of the most important consequences is improved security. Through mass surveillance, the government will be able to keep track of events happening all over the country and be in a position to identify security threats and respond almost immediately. Furthermore, mass surveillance will also ensure that people become responsible in the society, cautious of their environment and the kind of information they share with others. In addition, mass surveillance will result in improved social relations in the country. Many people will feel free to move and interact with others with the knowledge that the government is in control in managing the security situation.
On the other hand, mass surveillance also has its own challenges and negative consequences. Firstly, it will result in massive abuse of human rights. The government will be able to access huge amounts of data and information about individuals, intruding in their privacy, entering their property in the name of maintaining security (Wintour and Travis, 2014). This will greatly limit the right of the people to privacy and confidentiality. Secondly, mass surveillance is likely to cause fear among the population as opposed to enforcing security. This is because most people will fear communicating with their friends and discussing certain topics associated with security. As such the freedom of individuals to speak will be limited a great deal.
On the basis of the positive and negative consequences of mass surveillance discussed above, it is very difficult to make a clear cut decision regarding the morality of the practice. Nevertheless, the question of security of the populace is one of the core roles of the central government, which is obliged to protect its citizens at all times (Wintour and Travis, 2014). Therefore, since security will result in the greatest good for most people in the country, mass surveillance is essentially a moral practice. However, there is still great need for the government to remain transparent in terms of the kinds of information they access as well as the specific circumstances when they access the information. This will boost public confidence in the process and make it benefit most people, making it more of a moral action.
d. Kant’s Categorical Imperative
Kant’s categorical imperative is based on the principle that humans have a special place among all other creatures on earth. Therefore, the morality of humans can only be considered as imperative or as emanating from pure reason, where also other duties and obligations of human beings are derived from (Hill, 2009 p. 23). Kant defined an imperative as any proposition that considers an action to be necessary. Kant’s categorical imperative denotes an absolute and unconditional demand, which has to be obeyed regardless of the circumstances (Altman, 2011 p. 31). The categorical imperative is made up of three formulations, which are all important in determining the morality of an action. The first formulation states that actions can only be considered right if they can be applied universally to become the universal law applicable to all humans in the world. The second formulation states that, people should only be used as ends in themselves as opposed to being used as means to an end. Finally, the third formulation states that each person should consider themselves as ends in themselves, but never as means (Hill, 2009 p. 37). The three formulations form the basis of Kant’s categorical imperative and its guidelines on determining the moral value of actions.
The main principle that is guiding mass surveillance is the need to protect the citizens from disastrous security challenges of the 21st century such as terrorism. As the national government, its core duty is to protect its citizens in order to bolster prosperity. Based on the categorical imperative of Immanuel Kant, by performing its act, which is necessary, the government is performing a moral act. Furthermore, the government considers its people to be ends in themselves, hence the need to focus on protecting them and preserving their dignity. In addition, the rule can also be applied universally, since the need to protect citizens is an international or universal concern.
In conclusion, mass surveillance is one of the issues that have received considerable coverage in media in recent years. This is as a result of most governments improving their security systems to safeguard their citizens amidst emerging security threats such as terrorism. However, there have been many issues related to the morality of mass surveillance, more so in the developed world such as in the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, an analysis of the issue based on two major ethical perspectives or theoretical models of utilitarianism and Kant’s categorical imperative indicate that the practice of mass surveillance is indeed moral it if its conduct within the spirit of maintaining national or international security. Mass surveillance has passed all the criteria for both theoretical perspectives of morality. However, the findings of the ethical analyses above do not conform to my own conscience and personal views on the matter. I firmly believe that the government should put issues such as privacy of individuals ahead of implementing any security strategy.
Deflem, M. (2008). Surveillance and governance: Crime control and beyond. Bingley, UK: Emerald/JAI.
Hill, T. E. (2009). The Blackwell guide to Kant's ethics. Chichester, U.K: Wiley-Blackwell.
Altman, M. C. (2011). Kant and applied ethics: The uses and limits of Kant's practical philosophy. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.
Hier, S. P., & Greenberg, J. (2007). The surveillance studies reader. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Quinn, M. (2012). Utilitarianism and the art school in nineteenth-century Britain. London: Pickering & Chatto.
Wintour, P., and Travis, A. (2014, July 10). UK government to rush through emergency surveillance legislation. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/jul/10/high-court-snoopers-charter