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?

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4 Responses to On being private in public

  • Anders Sandberg says:

    One aspect of this is the one-way nature of the viewing: the manager can watch, but the staff cannot tell when or if they are watched. It reinforces a asymmetry of power.

    Suppose every time the manager logged on her webcamera also recorded her, placing the footage on a server the staff could watch (let’s assume this would just show her office den rather than any private parts of her home). I think most people would view that function as quite acceptable: yes, she could watch and comment, but the staff could in principle check that she was doing it professionally too. Even if the actual probability of them watching the webcam footage or the manager behaving somehow improperly while watching, the mere existence of this symmetry seems to even out things.

  • Keith Tayler says:

    Not knowing whether you are being observed or not is of course the ‘new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example’ that Jeremy Bentham described in his essay Panopticon. Two hundred years later and it has almost been normalised.

    Of course we should be ‘able to dance-as-you-mop in private’, and if the management don’t like it we should tell them where they can put the mop. At a time when jobs are thin on the ground this might take a little courage, but if we all had a little courage we might stem the growth of this normalising technology.

  • Ian says:

    Interpreting the question as; Are the use of audit trails (CCTV in this case), for reasons other than those they were originally argued and designed/installed for ethical; opens up many other questions.
    Are mechanical organisational structures useful across all organisations?
    Is autonomy morally correct or ethical?
    Is slavery morally correct or ethical?
    Is any given development in any field morally correct or ethical?
    At what point does a value facet within a social sphere change to such an extent it is viewed differently to that previously accepted?
    “It was Disraeli who had discovered that vice is but the corresponding reflection of crime in society. Human wickedness, if accepted by society, is changed from an act of will into an inherent, psychological quality which man cannot choose or reject but which is imposed upon him from without, and which rules him as compulsively as the drug rules the addict.”
    1. H. Arendt, The origins of totalitarianism, Meridian Books. The World Publishing Company, Cleveland and New York, 1962.
    The many decisions and actions made in this era (official and unofficial) where those private words spoken in differing public spheres become widely and acceptably presented or socially utilised for contextually different purposes often cause me to re-consider writings on slavery, as they are useful mechanisms for assisting understanding the psychology in this type of discussion; As is considering the world views which are engendered by promoting, accepting or rejecting particular values.
    “The physician Galen, who treated one imperial functionary, saw him as a kind of slave, since the man worked all day long for his master, the emperor, and “became himself once again, independent of his master, only at nightfall.” The same ambiguity attached to another important role: steward for a great family. This post was generally entrusted to the scion of a ruined old family. Plutarch speaks of his steward in a tone of commiseration: he is an inferior brother.”
    2. P. Veyne, “The roman empire. “Work” and leisure,” A history of private life, G. Duby, P. Ariès and P. Veyne (Editors), vol. 1, Harvard University Press, London, 1992, pp. 126-127.
    “Although a century separates the two vocabularies, it would thus appear that, by and large, the same motivations of controlling the slave population inspired the Euro-Brazilians who compiled them.”
    3. O. Yai, “Texts of enslavement: Fon and yorub vocabularies from eighteenth- and nineteenth- century brazil,” Identity in the Shadow of Slavery, P. E. Lovejoy (Editor), Continuum, London ; New York, 2000, p. 112.
    In that sense in an insecure world full of security blankets, trust and its decay seems to become unrecognized and spins out of control unless checked and counter checked.
    “The method of identifying individual enslaved Africans and following their routes into slavery reveals that individuals were enslaved most often for political purposes and occasionally for more narrowly defined judicial or religious reasons. “
    4. P. E. Lovejoy, “Enslaved africans in the diaspora,” Identity in the Shadow of Slavery, P. E. Lovejoy (Editor), Continuum, London ; New York, 2000, p. 4.
    “In following the slave route, it is important to consider those among the enslaved who never left western Africa. As Francine Shields demonstrates in her study of enslaved Yoruba women in this volume, the southward push of the Sokota jihad and the Yoruba wars generated a substantial population of slaves, many of whom experienced their captivity in Yorubaland, not in the Americas.”
    5. P. E. Lovejoy, “Enslaved africans in the diaspora,” Identity in the Shadow of Slavery, P. E. Lovejoy (Editor), Continuum, London ; New York, 2000, p. 2.
    So although ones identity may be protected, projected or parroted in many ways in this information age the whole is more simply and automatically collated for use by who knows who for who knows what, with visibility of power relations being an important element but often being less of a protection than a frequent liability when a value laden structure itself is seemingly incrementally moving only in one particular direction.

  • Rebecca Roache says:

    This is a very interesting topic! First, I agree with Anders’ point. Second, the post reminded me of something similar: many years ago, I attended a job interview and was asked to complete a multiple choice questionnaire. It contained questions about what I would do in certain hypothetical circumstances, with little obvious relevance to the job I was applying for, and the interviewer cheerily reassured me that there were ‘no right or wrong answers’ before leaving me to get on with it. It played some sort of psychological profiling purpose, and it disturbed me for perhaps similar reasons to why your friend’s manager’s behaviour disturbs you. I am still not sure how to express my discomfort with it but I think it partly relates to the fact that the questionnaire seemed to be an attempt to find out what I was ‘really like’ in a way that bypassed my consciousness and control of the information I was divulging. My potential employers presumably wanted to find out about me this way rather than by asking me less cryptic questions because they thought I might lie and try to present myself in a way that was to my (but not necessarily their) advantage. It strikes me as equivalent to insisting that your friends are connected to a lie detector machine while you talk to them, before you have any reason to distrust them. Trust is important in friendship, and also in the relationship between an employer and an employee: to skip it completely and work on the assumption that friends/employees will lie given the chance might mean we are deceived less often, but our relationships would be impoverished as a result. Something similar seems to apply for the CCTV case: by scrutinising it in this way, the manager reveals a lack of trust in her employees despite (presumably, given she hasn’t fired them) having no good reason to distrust them.

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