On being private in public
We all know that we are under CCTV surveillance on many occasions each day, particularly when we are in public places. For the most part we accept that being – or potentially being – watched in public places is a reasonable price to pay for the security that 24-hour surveillance offers. However, we also have expectations about what is done with CCTV footage, when, and by whom. A recent discussion with a friend threw up some interesting questions about the nature of these expectations and their reasonableness.
My friend works in a bar where, unsurprisingly, there are several CCTV cameras. Everyone knows where these cameras are and that they are permanently in operation – there is not supposed to be any secrecy. Whilst the primary purpose of the cameras is to promote security, a member of the management team has begun to use them in a way that could be seen as ethically problematic: she logs on to view the footage in real-time, remotely, at her home. In addition to watching the footage, the manager has also addressed points of staff discipline based on what she sees. Perhaps particularly troubling is that she has commented on the way a member of staff behaved when no one was around – when the member of staff thought that she was ‘alone’.
To me there seems to be something wrong about this, but it is hard to pinpoint exactly what: the members of staff know that the cameras are there and they know that the real-time camera footage can be viewed from the office in the bar. Perhaps the first issue involves expectations about the likelihood and purpose of being watched. Given that the primary purpose of the cameras is to promote security, the staff might reasonably expect that no close attention will be paid to the footage unless there is a serious incident. Under such circumstances, the movements of the staff members will only be closely observed insomuch as they are part of, or relevant to, the incident in question. In addition, any incidental embarrassing or indiscreet behaviour that a member of staff might engage in whilst apparently ‘alone’ would pale in significance in light of the details of the serious incident. In contrast, when the manager watches from home she is interested in particular in the behavior of the members of staff – she pays close attention to them. Relatedly, when used for security purposes, footage is often viewed retrospectively and non-essential parts are fast-forwarded. The manager, on the other hand, is watching closely, in real-time, with no antecedent security concerns.
The second issue is what it is appropriate for the manager to do when she is off duty. It is true that the behaviour of staff and the security of the bar do not cease to be within her professional interest in general when she leaves to go home. If she were to hear that a member of staff conducted himself inappropriately whilst she was not there, the fact that she was not on duty at the time would not and should not prevent her from addressing it. However, there does seem to be something about her viewing live footage of the bar in her leisure time and acting on what she sees as not quite right. The intuition might be that the scope of her role – particularly her jurisdiction to discipline – does not extend to her home when off duty. However, this intuition can be challenged if we imagine that – instead of noticing something from home on the cameras – she were to ‘drop in’ on her day off and happen to view the same thing. If she were to act on what she views under these circumstances I doubt any eyebrows would be raised.
Probably, the core of the unease we might feel derives from the seeming ‘misuse’ of the CCTV: watching for whether members of staff take too long on their breaks or don’t answer the telephone as quickly as possible are not security matters. In addition, the invisibility of the watchful eye seems to make a difference: when she drops in on her day off her presence is known about. Finally, some of the unease might also relate to suspicions about the manager’s motivation for watching remotely from home: whether she acts or comments on what she sees or not, watching the movements of staff members like a fly on the wall shifts her interest from professional to personal.
But do these factors really make this practice ethically problematic? Is the off duty home-viewing really something we can object to? The cameras are there, the signs indicating their presence are clear and the bar is, after all, a public place and a place of work. But, when the customers are all gone and you’re left shutting up for the night, should you not be able to dance-as-you-mop in private?