The enhancement of communication through mobile and wireless technologies is testament to the positive contributions of technological advances to modern society. These technological advances also represent a platform through which terrorist acts can be reduced and eliminated, specifically through surveillance. This is in consideration of the September 11 attacks and the ensuing loss of life and property which led to passage of laws meant to avoid such adverse outcomes through surveillance. This is affirmed by Atkin (2013) who indicates that the attacks presented exceptional circumstances for reduction in privacy rights for national security reasons but that continued warrantless surveillance reflects an unreasonable infringement on civil liberties. The problem is that greater and continued surveillance will lead to infringement of privacy and associated civil liberties especially when laws and institutions meant to ensure checks and balances are bypassed, which increases chances of potential abuses. This paper, in light of new laws being passed to permit more and extended government surveillance of the internet, assesses whether this is a good idea, in reference to rights based ethics (Contractarianism) and Reynolds Seven-Step Approach.
Government Surveillance and Ethics
Reynolds seven step approach provides a useful framework and guide for effective ethical decision making with regards to assessment of whether new laws permitting more government surveillance of the internet is a good idea. The seven steps begin by getting all the facts, followed by identification of stakeholders who may be affected by the decision and their positions; thirdly, consider decision consequences and fourth, weigh various guidelines and principles (Weir and Sultan, 2011). Fifth is developing and evaluating options, then reviewing the decision and lastly, evaluating the result of the decision.

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The first step calls for getting the facts which are; that increased government surveillance is infringing (and has greater potential for infringing) on people’s privacy as expressed by Wong (2016), a senior researcher on the Internet and human rights at Human Rights Watch. The relevant stakeholders are primarily government security agencies, private companies in technology fields and citizens where the former’s position lies in acquiring personal information for national security, while private companies are compelled to provide personal information while citizens face risks of privacy infringement. In terms of consideration of decision consequences, yes or no answers may have adverse outcomes which means that consequences for both will have to be weighed.

Guidelines and principles as well as legal implications and corporate policies as set out in step four require adherence to established privacy and surveillance laws, professional code of conduct and established corporate policies about information use, access and distribution. Weight should be given in accordance to protection of citizens and minimization of infringement into their privacy even though a hybrid solution that does both is preferable as it protects the citizens while safeguarding their rights. As such, options available include; allowing continued government surveillance (one); option one plus without privacy infringements (two); options one and two plus establishment and enforcement of strong privacy laws (three); eliminating government surveillance, as it is a bad idea (four) or reducing surveillance to specific information (five).

Citizens and private sector stakeholders would vote to eliminate surveillance’s privacy infringement but would still favor security while government agencies would vote to continue surveillance for better security outcomes. Likely compromise in this would require adoption of option two, three and five, if a balance between security and liberty is to be maintained; and where expectations would be greater access to, use and distribution of information when necessary and guided by laws and appropriate guidelines. As such, the best choice would be option three which combines government surveillance and protection of privacy founded on establishment and enforcement of strong privacy laws which allows liberty and security to be upheld (Mullikin and Rahman, 2010).

This solution is ideal as it caters to the interests of the various stakeholders involved in the issue in a manner that is not conflicting, and which is supported by rights-based ethics, specifically Contractarianism. Contractarianism regards moral norms as being derived and empowered by the concept of a social contract or mutual agreement. This agreement is defined by an initial bargaining position without governmental institutions as well as the rationality and motivation defining the parties’ entry into agreement. Simply put, the contract means that people have to surrender some of their freedoms to governments in exchange for social order preservation, which explains societal formations and their coming together in solidarity to ensure security as a basis for exercising one’s rights (Kleinig et al., 2011). As such, the proposed solution depicts loss of some freedoms (even though remedied by strict privacy rules) as well as enhancement of security by rooting out criminals before they commit crimes and allowing the citizenry to exercise their other rights in peace and harmony. In line with Contractarian moral theory, the morality of allowing violation of personal privacy is balanced by benefits and rationality of enhanced general public security especially since communication is vital to acts of security as well as insecurity.

With citizens expressing disgust due to violations of privacy after classified documents are revealed to the public, many governments are faced with immense pressure to make appropriate changes in a way that privacy infringements are eliminated. Further, the increase in threats facing the homeland and the consequent need created for surveillance as a measure for preventing criminal acts has necessitated questions of whether it is a good idea to accept more government surveillance of the internet considering associated (potential) adverse outcomes. Using Reynolds Seven-Step Approach for ethical decision making, the identified best option entails a combination of government surveillance and protection of privacy founded on establishment and enforcement of strong privacy laws which allows liberty and security to be upheld. In addition, this is supported by a rights-based Contractarian ethical approach where rationality and sacrifice of rational self-interest leads to cooperation between people while reaping benefits of enhanced public security as a support for better lives and exercise of other freedoms.

  • Atkin, M. L. (2013). Balancing liberty and security: An ethical study of U.S. foreign intelligence surveillance, 2001–2009. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
  • Kleinig, J., Mameli, P., Miller, S., Salane, D. & Schwartz, A. (2011). Security and privacy: Global standards for ethical identity management in contemporary liberal democratic states. Canberra ACT, Australia: The Australian University E-Press.
  • Mullikin, A. & Rahman, S.M. (2010). The ethical dilemma of the USA government wiretapping. International Journal of Managing Information Technology (IJMIT), 2(4), 32-9. doi:10.5121/ijmit.2010.2403
  • Weir, D. & Sultan, N. (2011). From critique to action: The practical ethics of the organizational world. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
  • Wong, C. (2016). Internet at a Crossroads: How Government Surveillance Threatens How We Communicate. Human Rights Watch. Retrieved from