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Monitoring and Surveillance


Monitoring is a general term that refers to the systematic, continual, and active or passive observation of persons, places, things, or processes. By contrast surveillance is used to indicate targeted monitoring of activities by police or security officials for specific evidence of crimes or other wrongdoing. Surveillance focuses on individuals, buildings and properties, or vehicles deemed suspicious on the basis of credible information that they are connected in some way to illegal or otherwise inappropriate activity. Surveillance operations carried out by investigators may: (1) be stationary or mobile in nature and require various types of monitoring technologies to enhance the visual or hearing capabilities of officers or operatives doing the surveillance; (2) involve recording of events, locations, days or times, and patterns of behaviors or activities; and (3) include monitoring of telephone or in-person conversations, as well as electronic correspondence such as E-mail or instant messaging notes exchanged between individuals or groups of people. Surveillance is usually carried out in covert ways and with legal authority.

Monitoring typically involves routine recording of activities to warn of trouble or for accounting purposes. Open public spaces such as airports, shopping malls, and other places where large numbers of people gather are monitored to help assure public safety and security. Surveillance is the targeted monitoring of people suspected of committing crimes or other civil wrongdoings. Examples of monitoring tools are smoke detectors and turnstile counters used to determine the number of subway passengers. In contrast, electronic building-access cards have a surveillance element because individuals can be held accountable for improper use of the device. Monitoring systems that are used also as surveillance devices include video cameras in commercial and public spaces. Electronic listening devices that are placed to record conversations of targeted people are surveillance tools. Point-of-sale systems that monitor inventory and customer buying habits may be ethically problematic, but the function of those devices does not have a surveillance aspect as that term is used in this entry.

Spying combines the arts and technologies of monitoring and surveillance along with active intelligence gathering and analysis in order to advance a government or corporate interest. Spying is often commissioned by secretive government agencies in the interest of national security, or by unscrupulous corporations intent on illegally discovering the secrets of competitors. Spying is covert in nature and, if exposed, may have negative legal, political, or financial repercussions for the agencies, corporations, firms, or individuals involved.

The differences between monitoring, surveillance, and spying mostly concern the purposes and sponsors of the activities, and the degree to which they are carried out in relatively covert versus overt ways. The same technologies that are used for monitoring (such as binoculars, night-vision equipment, and listening and recording equipment) can also be used for surveillance and spying. In general, monitoring technologies are used in relatively overt ways in many sectors of society, whereas in surveillance and spying, technologies are used primarily in covert investigations.

Monitoring Technologies in Society

Humans develop their knowledge of monitoring techniques and their skill in using monitoring technologies with age, experience, and training. From childhood, throughout adolescence, and into adulthood, humans combine cognitive skills with sensory perceptions in order to observe, monitor, interact with, and generally function within their environments. In so doing, people learn to decipher patterns, trends, and anomalies and thereby recognize what is ordinary versus unusual regarding places, things, and processes.

Safety and security, as well as efficiency and effectiveness (as in manufacturing processes), are premised on people knowing when things are out of place. For this reason, people are often monitored while driving in traffic, waiting in airports or train and bus stations, working in their places of employment, shopping in malls or detached retail stores, or as they are depositing or withdrawing money from automatic teller machines (ATMs) located at banks or other locations.

Monitoring technologies are combinations of simple and complex tools and techniques that facilitate routine and systematic observation, recording, and analysis of activities or processes in specific locations. Essentially they help people understand what is going on in a given environment. Monitoring technologies encompass a variety of communications, computing, electromechanical, imaging, robotics, and sensing devices and systems. These include but are not limited to closed-circuit television (CCTV) systems, global positioning and tracking devices, and metal or contraband detection devices. Monitoring technologies such as these may also include or integrate various combinations of alarms and warning systems that signal when something unusual occurs, or when a desired state or condition has been met.

Monitoring technologies are used by government agencies; by manufacturing, service, and other businesses; and in fields as disparate as agriculture (for crop and livestock monitoring), astronomy (to track movements of planets, comets, or asteroids), and meteorology (for monitoring and forecasting of weather and climatic patterns). They are used to observe many types of human activities and processes, such as vehicular traffic congestion on public roadways and commercial and military aircraft flight patterns, and to detect malfunctions in manufacturing processes. In medical fields, monitoring technologies are used to check the status of patients on treadmills and to signal problems experienced by those recovering from major surgery (Abrami and Johnson 1990).

Monitoring technologies are employed extensively in security and criminal justice situations (National Institute of Justice 2003). For example, law enforcement officers use all-weather camera systems to observe and record, and also to aid in dispatched responses to, suspicious activities. Intrusion and motion detectors are devices used to detect and signal several conditions. For example, excessive heat or cold indicator devices and warning alarm systems for foreign substances such as smoke, carbon dioxide, and radon are all used to promote safety and security. Virus detection software applications, which are often used in combination with firewalls, help insure computer privacy and security.

Similarly police use cameras mounted in their vehicles to remotely monitor or record interactions between themselves and motorists during traffic stops. Global information system monitoring technologies are used to keep track of the locations of emergency vehicles, or to monitor specific locations and movements of prisoners inside detention facilities or those on supervised release programs. These are just some examples of the various types of monitoring technologies and what they can be used for. In all these situations, monitoring technologies are intended to facilitate detection and warning of unusual and potentially unsafe or threatening behaviors, conditions, or developments.

History of Surveillance

Surveillance is the close observation of a person or group. While technology is not necessary to surveillance, certain technologies greatly facilitate it. Video and computer technologies, for instance, have made surveillance an important feature of modern societies. In many cities—London stands out—the average citizen is captured on video many times each day. Many shops use closed-circuit television to videotape customers and staff and to record transactions. Workplace surveillance is becoming common as well: According to an American Management Association (AMA) survey, "In 2003, more than half of U.S. companies engage in some form of e-mail monitoring of employees and enforce e-mail policies with discipline or other methods. ... 22% of companies have terminated an employee for e-mail infractions" (AMA 2003, p. 1).

Following the lead of Michel Foucault (1977), many critics see modern societies as panopticons, tending toward Jeremy Bentham's model prison design in which each prisoner is kept under observation by invisible watchers. This metaphor reveals something about the history of surveillance as well as its ethics.

Historically, surveillance has been a labor-intensive undertaking. Bentham's prison was designed to enable a single guard to oversee many prisoners. Short of the severe constraint of a prison environment, this ratio is difficult to attain. For instance, following someone undetected on the street requires a team of several trained agents. Thus widespread covert surveillance of a population would be extremely expensive without technological augmentation. This is also true for reading large volumes of handwritten mail. In both cases, technology has offered possibilities. The automated searching of text, for example, has made it economically practical to read the E-mail of every employee in a firm.

The path of technological development can be expected to influence whether one is exposed to surveillance at a given time. Text is still easier to search than voice or video images. The situation is fluid, however, because technological development is rapid, especially given the widespread security concerns that followed the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Ethics of Monitoring

Increasingly affordable, interoperable, and compact technologies make possible and help to perpetuate the human desire and willingness to engage in the monitoring of virtually any activity, location, or process. In other words, monitoring technologies make ubiquitous watching possible. George Orwell popularized the fear of omnipresent monitoring and surveillance in his classic novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Since the book was published, people in developed nations, particularly Americans (who have always been concerned about protecting privacy rights), have become increasingly anxious about the technology-enabled monitoring capabilities of their governments. But, notwithstanding concerns about privacy, widespread and even routine use of monitoring technologies for numerous purposes has become the norm. Indeed given growing worldwide concerns about crime and terrorism, use of sophisticated technologies to support legal surveillance by security and law enforcement officials, and even spying by government intelligence agencies, is often welcomed, if not actually deemed necessary, as a means of enhancing security and safety and reducing fear in both public and private places (SPIE 2002).

While responsible use of monitoring technologies is generally acknowledged as sensible and, therefore, is often encouraged in private property situations, the same is not true for public domains. Law enforcement use of monitoring technologies to observe open spaces is often met with strong criticism from the people who the police or security officials are trying to protect. Resistance to government watchfulness is rooted in the belief that even passive monitoring of public spaces impinges on the privacy and other rights of individuals and groups who are legally present or assembled and are doing nothing wrong.

The controversy and ethical dilemma is twofold. First, will the use of monitoring technologies in public spaces create a social-psychological atmosphere of intimidation versus promoting safety or well-being (Goold 2002)? Second, will increasing legal use of monitoring technologies by authorities lead to collective endorsement of such tactics that, if taken to the extreme, will create conditions resembling a high-tech police state akin to the Big Brother atmosphere conceived by Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four?

Ethics of Surveillance

Foucault's panopticon metaphor reveals something about the ethics of surveillance:

The major effect of the panopticon was to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects even if it is discontinuous in its action; ... this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it. (Foucault 1997, p. 201)

Thus surveillance creates a new power relationship because those subject to it must always behave as if someone is watching, even if no one is.

While properly focusing on the strategic element in surveillance and pointing out the power differences between watcher and watched, this assessment exaggerates the situation. Though it is true that surveillance need not be continuous to be effective, those being watched have counterstrategies. The simplest is for them not to act as if they are always being watched.

Because surveillance is a dynamic process, unexpected consequences are likely. Consider, for example, radar for monitoring automobile speed, an early form of electronic surveillance. Naively one might think that equipping police with radar would lead all drivers to obey speed limits. But this expectation ignores the strategic element in the situation. Not every road that has a "Speed Controlled by Radar" sign is actually monitored—the police typically follow a mixed strategy and patrol only some of the signed roads. Drivers know this and do not always obey the speed limits. In addition, there are technological countermeasures: Sophisticated radar detectors are cheap and widely used. This situation leads to two kinds of ethical question. First, is this technological arms race efficient, once the cost of countermeasures and the failure to control speed completely is taken into account? Second, is surveillance radar fair? Does it catch anyone other than those too poor or naive to participate in the strategic game played out by law enforcement and drivers with antiradar equipment?

Other examples of counterstrategies include obstruction of video surveillance devices and using language ambiguities to confound text-based surveillance. Once the potential of counterstrategies is taken into account, the logic of surveillance goes beyond the panopticon. Most populations are not as confined as prisoners. Most surveillance, to be effective, needs the support of the majority of its subjects (Danielson 2005). Consider how this plays out in three typical surveillance venues.

STATE AND PUBLIC SURVEILLANCE. Surveillance by agencies of the state is the most familiar model of surveillance. However the Big Brother image is probably out of sync with the practice in many modern technological societies where private surveillance is more prevalent.

State surveillance in democratic states requires public acquiescence. This tends to be forthcoming when events make a security rationale salient, as in states that fear a terrorist attack or experience a great deal of crime. Without this impetus, public outcry has forced liberal states to remove public cameras (e.g., Canada) or subject them to strict regulation (e.g., the United Kingdom).

THE WORKPLACE. Workplace surveillance is distinguished by two features. First, employees are contractually related to employers, so consent, or broad doctrines of implied consent, permit surveillance in the workplace that would be controversial in public places. There are, of course, conflicts over the line between permitted workplace surveillance and protected privacy at work. Surveillance of washrooms and other private spaces has caused controversy, as has intercepting and logging E-mail and personal web browsing.

Second, more computerized jobs expose more workers to surveillance. Computerized surveillance is inexpensive and indiscriminate. New, cheap technologies tend to get overused, beyond their practical and ethical justification. Practically, unwelcome surveillance can undermine employee morale, destroying organizational goals. Ethically, privacy is the value most at risk. For example, widely deployed wireless surveillance cameras effectively broadcast whatever information they pick up, creating an opening for outside interception. This threat is increased by the recent introduction of inexpensive web-based and cell-phone-based cameras.

COMMERCIAL AND INDIVIDUAL SURVEILLANCE. Examples of commercial, individual applications range from the convenience store video camera to the nannycam installed to watch children and caregivers. Because the technology deployed in these contexts is quite primitive, there are additional risks to privacy and other values. In addition, the increased use of surveillance technology in the home challenges traditional lines between public and private spaces (Nissenbaum 1997). People expect to be observed in public and at work—and adjust their behavior accordingly—but this expectation does not exist for private spaces.


The ethics of surveillance is best developed for the workplace. Overall there are three main lessons. First, legitimacy makes a difference by avoiding unwelcome surveillance and lowering the costs of countermeasures. Consent and, as a precondition, education about the technology are obvious ways to increase legitimacy. Second, the ethical risks of surveillance should be conveyed to would-be users, which, hopefully, would limit use to more serious cases. Third, more explicit norms against the incursion of surveillance technology into private spaces may be necessary.

People who object to increased monitoring suggest that quality of life will be unduly, negatively affected by the mere presence of cameras and tracking and recording devices, and that even if people do not have a legal right and expectation of privacy in open spaces, social interactions, unfettered spontaneity, and being able to feel as though one is not being watched are qualities of life that ought not be compromised. Further, if left unchecked, increasing use of monitoring technologies will undermine the freedoms of speech, movement, association, assembly, and religion. Supporters of monitoring usually point out that such devices provide effective deterrence against crimes or other inappropriate conduct, as well as a means to respond to, interdict, and if legally appropriate, apprehend violators. Supporters also point out that the mere presence of cameras and recording devices can make people feel safer, and that persons obeying the law have nothing to hide or fear because police and security officials exist to provide protection and can be held accountable for illegal or inappropriate use of their powers.

Ethical use of monitoring technologies by anyone hinges on circumstances under which people have an expectation of privacy. In general, U.S. courts have ruled that citizens and residents have constitutionally based privacy protection in their homes and other privately owned places. People have considerably less, or no, expectation of privacy, however, as students in private or public schools, in places of employment, or in open spaces or other public places. Proper use of monitoring technologies by private individuals, firms, corporations, or government authorities can improve or lessen quality of life from the standpoint of privacy versus safety and security, and also enhance the quality of manufactured products. Ultimately what constitutes proper use of monitoring technologies is a matter to be resolved on ethical, legal, social, and economic grounds.


SEE ALSO Internet; Privacy; Telephone.


Abrami, Patrick F., and Joyce E. Johnson. (1990). Bringing Computers to the Hospital Bedside: An Emerging Technology. New York: Springer Publishing.

Bentham, Jeremy. (1969). "Panopticon Papers." In A Bentham Reader, ed. Mary Peter Mack. New York: Pegasus.

Constant, Mike, and Philip Ridgeon. (2000). The Principles and Practice of CCTV, 2nd edition. Borehamwood, England: Paramount Publishing.

Danielson, Peter. (2005). "Ethics of Workplace Surveillance Games." In Electronic Monitoring in the Workplace: Controversies and Solutions, ed. John Weckert. Hershey, PA: Idea Group Publishing.

Foucault, Michel. (1977). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Pantheon.

Goold, Benjamin. (2002). "Privacy Rights and Public Spaces: CCTV and the Problem of the 'Unobservable Observer.'" Criminal Justice Ethics 21(1): 21–27.

Hunter, Richard. (2002). World without Secrets: Business, Crime, and Privacy in the Age of Ubiquitous Computing. New York: Wiley.

Lyon, David, and Elia Zureik, eds. (1996). Computers, Surveillance, and Privacy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

National Institute of Justice. (2003). "CCTV: Constant Cameras Track Violators." National Institute of Justice Journal 249: 16–23.

Nissenbaum, Helen. (1997). "Toward an Approach to Privacy in Public: The Challenges of Information Technology." Ethics and Behavior 7(3): 207–219. Develops the public/private distinction.

Orwell, George. (1949). Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Novel. London: Secker and Warburg. The classic surveillance dis-utopia. Note that the source of recent surveillance has shifted from governments to include corporations and individuals.

Society of Photo-optical Instrumentation Engineers (SPIE). (2002). Sensors, and Command, Control, Communications, and Intelligence (C3I) Technologies for Homeland Defense and Law Enforcement. Bellingham, WA: Author. Conference proceedings of the SPIE, April 1–5, Orlando, Florida.


American Management Association (AMA). (2003). "E-Mail Rules, Policies, and Practices Survey." Available from An accessible survey of corporate e-mail surveillance practices in the United States.

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