Fiala on Ethics: Be aware of your actions in this age of surveillance

May 2, 2014 

We live in an age of constant surveillance, where our words and actions can be made public by anyone with a cellphone and an Internet connection. In the old days, morality was enforced with the thought that God was watching. In the era of totalitarian states, God was replaced by Big Brother.

Today, surveillance has become democratic, as each of us has the power to record and publicize the misdeeds of anyone we meet. Big Brother has been replaced by a billion kid brothers who keep sticking their cameras into other people's business.

Secret recordings have exposed some egregious stuff. The racist comments of L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling were exposed in this way. A few weeks earlier, a Golden State Warriors assistant coach was fired for making secret recordings of his team.

In 2011, an NPR employee was caught saying that tea party activists are xenophobic racists. Also in 2011, President Obama and former French President Sarkozy were caught speaking privately about their dislike for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In 2012, a secret recording of Mitt Romney caught him saying that 47% of the public were dependent on the government.

The law provides some protection against clandestine recording. But once the cat is out of the bag, the law won't fix a damaged reputation. It is hard to hide anything in the era of crowd-sourced, pocket-sized surveillance. Racists, sexists, adulterers, and crooks should know that in the Facebook era, your bad deeds are only a click away.

While we might question the motives of the kid brother snoops, there is no denying their power and the serious loss of privacy this creates. But prying eyes can force us to behave ourselves. Whatever you say or do — in a business meeting, on the golf course, or online — can end up being made public.

One solution is simply to avoid saying or doing dumb and immoral stuff; and don't be a hypocrite. We ought to behave — even in private — in ways that we are proud to affirm. We ought to avoid saying and doing those sorts of things that get the gossips talking and the cameras recording. If you wouldn't say it in public, then don't say it at all.

Hypocrites change their speech and behavior to fit their audience. Hypocrisy rests upon a tangled web of lies, masks, secret alliances, inside jokes, winks, and nods. Hypocrites say and do things in private that they condemn in public and vice versa. Gossipy snoops love to expose hypocrisy.

Justice Louis Brandeis once suggested that publicity is the remedy for social diseases. He said, "sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman." While this idea is often used to call for greater transparency in government, we forget that sunlight is an equal opportunity enlightener. We are all being observed and recorded all the time.

This is a bit scary. But kid brother surveillance does make it harder to keep immoral behavior and vicious ideas hidden. Some citizens are even turning the cameras on Big Brother himself. Earlier this year, someone smuggled a video recorder into the U.S. Supreme Court, which was the first time the court had ever been recorded. And camera phones have been used to record police brutality.

The prying eyes of a kid brother with a microphone can be irritating to those who value privacy. Sometimes we just want to be left alone. And liberty seems to require zones of privacy. Unfortunately, while it might be nice to imagine retreating to a world of pre-electronic privacy, the cell-cam Rubicon has already been crossed. One consolation is to recall that the good old days were also full of racism, sexism and other hypocritical diseases that fester in private places.

Kid brother surveillance means that privacy is a lost dream. Everyone you meet is armed with a camera. The constant threat of public exposure makes it harder for the hypocrites and racists to hide. The downside is that we each have to confront our own hypocrisies. Each of us now has the capacity to act as our brother's moral keeper. But we ought to first take a selfie, before we turn the camera on someone else.

 

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State. He invites your suggestions at fiala.andrew@gmail.com.

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