Nov 14, 2012 2 min read

Privacy and Surveillance – pt3 – a balancing act

Being watched can be unsettling for many people. In certain circumstances, it can heighten feelings of vulnerability and even lead to fears for our personal safety. This makes surveillance one of the key privacy issues that insurers need to pay attention to. In this post, I’ll outline why surveillance can be so unsettling and later this week, set out why it’s an issue that insurers need to manage carefully.

Surveillance is the watching, listening to, or recording of an individual’s activities. It can be undertaken overtly or covertly, with the focus sometimes on one person’s activities and other times on what a crowd of people are getting up to. So what makes it a privacy issue?

Some people don’t see it as a privacy issue at all. A common remark often made in discussions about surveillance is that the only people who have a problem with surveillance are those who have something to hide. Such a remark assumes that surveillance is a neutral activity, with no impact on the person being watched. That’s not the case however.

On the individual level, being watched can be uncomfortable. We may expect, and put up with, the occasional glance while travelling on a bus, but the thought that a fellow passenger might persistently stare at us would make all of us feel uncomfortable and put some off taking the bus in the first place. Being observed can be unsettling, heighten our inhibitions and lead to feelings of insecurity.

If the person glancing at us was then to follow us off the bus and along the street, then our discomfort could grow into feelings of harassment and possibly even a fear for our personal safety. Should such behaviour persist, then it could be classed as stalking. Accounts of people (many of whom are not celebrities) who have been persistently followed in this way sum up just how disturbing it can feel.

Yet here in the UK, many of us are being recorded on an almost continuous basis by CCTV cameras. Why doesn’t this form of surveillance raise concerns? It does in some quarters, but overall, it’s something that has received widespread acceptance. Two reasons are often cited: firstly, it’s based on an implicit social contract through which society feels more secure from the likes of robbers and terrorists from being watched over in this way. And secondly, and perhaps most importantly, it happens to us all: no one is being singled out.

If we feel uncomfortable from being under overt surveillance, does that make covert surveillance more acceptable? Not really, because the fear that we might be being watched can be just as uncomfortable. If such fears were left to grow unchecked, then society as a whole would suffer. George Orwell built his novel 1984 around just such a scenario.

This paints a rather dark picture of surveillance. Are our concerns about being watched, listened to or recorded really so overwhelming? Only, it could be said, for those who might be more than a little paranoid. The vast majority of us recognise that properly undertaken surveillance can help identify a wide range of civil and criminal offences. It can help improve the delivery and reduces the cost of many products and services we rely on, such as insurance. So there’s a balance to be managed in how surveillance is undertaken. In the next post, I’ll explore how insurers have managed that balance.

Duncan Minty
Duncan Minty
Duncan has been researching and writing about ethics in insurance for over 20 years. As a Chartered Insurance Practitioner, he combines market knowledge with a strong and independent radar on ethics.
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