Definition of surveillance


In our modern society of the 21st century, technology is developed rapidly; it is common for everyone to use any kind of digital devices and the Internet. We can video and record anything we want by just using the camera function in our cell phone, and then upload and share photos, sound records and videos in the Internet immediately. It is a general belief that we are living in a surveillance society. It is argued that the nature of surveillance has changed; from traditional surveillance which is visible to new surveillance which is invisible. The widespread of the advanced technology make people no longer sensitive and aware of being videoed and monitored in our daily life. Everyone monitor and is monitored by others. Is this social phenomenon of surveillance beneficial to our society or becoming a problem and risk of the right of privacy for the public?

Definition of Surveillance

Traditionally, surveillance was defined as "close observation, especially of a suspected person", it also implies a clear distinction between the object of surveillance and the person carrying it out. Moreover, traditional surveillance tends to be visible and having a high cost as most of the data collection process are done by human specialist(Marx 2002). However, as the times pass and the continuous development of advanced technology, the traditional definition of surveillance became blurred as in today, many of the new surveillance technologies are not " especially" applied to " a suspected person". They are commonly applied categorically. The new surveillance tends to be less visible or invisible and having a lower cost. Due to the advanced technology, most of the surveillance can be done by wholly or partly automated machines and everyone can be a monitor (Marx 2002).

Many people may challenge that the development of technology made surveillance become available to all. They may think that the abused usage of monitoring technology may lead to ethical issues like violating individual's privacy and leading the human relationship building in a distrust situation. This situation is similar to Alfred Nobel's invention of dynamite and the blasting cap. Who and how to use those technologies will lead to different outcomes. For instance, if the monitoring technology is used by criminals. It will definitely have a negative and adverse effect. However, if the new surveillance system is used in enhancing national security, government development policy, etc. It would be another story.

National Health Surveillance

In 1950, the term surveillance was restricted in public health practice to monitoring contacts of persons with serious communicable diseases such as small pox, in order to detect early symptoms so that prompt isolation could be instituted and as times changed, the rudimentary surveillance system had been modified, the role of public health surveillance is to collect, analyze, and interpret data about biological agents, diseases, risk factors, and other health events and to provide timely dissemination of collected information to decision makers (Thacker 1988). Surveillance serves at least eight public health functions. These include supporting case detection and public health interventions, estimating the impact of a disease or injury, portraying the natural history of a health condition, determining the distribution and spread of illness, generating hypotheses and stimulating research, evaluating prevention and control measures, and facilitating planning. Another important public health function of surveillance is outbreak detection (i.e., identifying an increase in frequency of disease above the background occurrence of the disease) (Teutsch 2000). For instance, in the National Pandemic Flu Service webpage, patients are requested to provide their date of birth, current symptoms, history of medical conditions and full addresses before the patients began their flu assessment and being advised. During the assessment, all suspected patients data will be collected and analyzed. The data is available in real time and the data collection process can be continuous and offer information on the past, present and future which aid the specialist to carry on in depth research and providing enough information for outbreak detection. Further example of public health surveillance including analyzing hair to determine drug usage. The introduction of the public health surveillance system can enhance the government ability to deal with any unexpected outbreaks as precaution is better than cure.

Surveillance For National Security

Besides public health surveillance, new surveillance also enhance the national security. The body's surveillance capacity is expanding as DNA databases proliferate and biometric identification promises to become a primary method of identification, for instance, the UK Border Agency required all applicants' fingerprints and from 30th Nov 2009, the UK Border Agency is introducing fingerprint checks at the border for passengers with biometric UK visas, entry clearances and identity cards for foreign nationals (ICFNs). The biometric data not only can verify that the passenger entering the UK is the same person to apply for the visa to eliminate entry of illegal immigrant, it also enlarged the national security database, as in before, when the crime was involving foreign students or workers, it's difficult to trace. But from now on, as all of the foreign workers and students are requested mandatory provision of their fingerprints. It will ease the executor to trace any criminal offences. Further to this, research had found that CCTVs were there to protect commercial and affluent areas and that camera operators routinely survey those they perceive (Fitzpatrick 2005). Fox (2001) also stated that the crime-fighting effects of CCTVs can at least provide a neat distraction from their actual role of assisting the police in controlling the populations. The mandatory provision of DNA samples & fingerprints, and the installation of CCTVs seem to be violating the privacy rights of UK and foreign citizens. However, according to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA), it aims to ensure that surveillance is carried out in a manner which is human rights compliant to prevent or detect crime or disorder, protect public health & safety and border the national security, etc.

Electronic Surveillance In Workplace

Rather than using surveillance in national security and public health level, electronic surveillance in the workplace has become more and more popular in the workplace, research had stated that up to 67% of large and medium companies did use some form of electronic monitoring system and disciplined their workers who misused technologies(Lee 2003).Lyon(2001) also stated that some forms of workplace surveillance are direct and deliberate. The growing use of email for communication within and between workplace has also spawned an industry of email control systems to check that the medium is used appropriately. Furthermore, surveillance of workers is the collection, assimilation, and use of biologic monitoring, medical screening or other health data for developing strategies for the prevention of disease. Biologic monitoring, medical screening, and surveillance are three components in a continuum of preventive practices useful in the preservation of occupational safety and health (Halperin & Frazier 1985). Today it is possible to archive and search all e-mail and voice communication in call centers, to count keystrokes, or to track the amount of time employees spend away from their computers (Schmitz 2005). However, conflicts thus emerged between employees and employers, employees argue that workplace surveillance is unethical as human must be treated as persons worthy of dignity. Electronic monitoring acts as an electronic whip in a new digital Taylorism, it violates the employees basic right to be treated with respect and is dehumanizing (Schmitz 2005). Also, employees may think that having a monitoring system may lead to stress, an unhealthy physical condition and a decline in loyalty which may finally decreases their productivity. However, in employers points of views, having a monitoring system not only can prevent company liability, it also improves the productivity. Employers think that they have the responsibility to provide a safe and secure workplace for their employees. Through electronic monitoring, they can ensure that all emails are free of offensive materials which may make other employees feel uncomfortable or threatened, more than that, the company can ensure that all the confidential information and trade secrets won't be leaked out. Furthermore, regular monitoring would reduce industrial espionage as employees know that monitoring exist, they will feel less inclined to commit illegal activities (Lee & Kleiner 2003). In addition, having a well-developed electronic monitoring system in the company can enhance productivity. By monitoring, management can provide feedback of employees' performance as computer based monitoring can trace every single transaction, managers thus can find out what kind of mistakes employees often make and provide them with advice (Lee & Kleiner 2003). Every time when we call the bank or telecom companies' call centre, the conversation between us and the employees are being recorded and monitored, this can aid the company to ensure every single staff answers the phone in an appropriate manner to ensure quality of service. Surveillance in workplace can also help motivate employees as monitoring gives employers a clear picture of which employees are hard workers and which are unproductive. Because their efforts on the job directly reflect on performance appraisals, workers become more committed (Lee & Kleiner 2003).

Household Surveillance

The development of technology not only can apply to national & business level, it also applies to every single household. For example, most network and anti-virus suppliers provide varies kind of service to different kind of households to satisfy their needs. For example, BT, offered a BT family protection package. Families can set up and choose their level of protection for each child on each computer in the family. Furthermore, they can filter out websites not suitable for children by age range or category, block or monitor programs such as Instant Messenger, restrict the times of day children can access the Internet and even get alerts when something happens. Besides this, CCTV suppliers also provide domestic CCTVs for households. Having a CCTV at home not only can reduce the chance of being burgled, it can also help parents keeping a closer eye on their children. In addition, the launched of nanny cameras can help regains trust back in childcare as nannies may seem the nicest of people but they could misuse your trust. Having a nanny camera, you can view what the nanny has been up to in your absence. Also, it can give parents comfort as with the right surveillance in your hands you can take the extra mile to provide security to your child.


The advancement of technology has significantly changed the society. The Internet and e-mail allow people to communicate effectively and efficiently with others and surveillance is becoming a trend among our society. Although, there is always criticism than surveillance will violate individual privacy and leading the entire society lack of social capital as people are willing to be monitored in order to protect themselves & their properties. There is no always true or false whether surveillance is good or not. As mentioned above, surveillance did help a lot in different levels of the society. With the use of the public health surveillance system, government can deal with the any unexpected outbreak more efficiently. With the aid of the CCTVs, biometric identifications and DNA database, national security can be enhanced, citizen's welfare thus being protected and so as their standard of livings. Having a monitoring system in workplace, employers can evaluate employees performance more efficiently. Also, the monitoring system can aid companies maintain the quality of service of their employees and thus increase the company productivity. In household, having a domestic surveillance system not only can enhance household security, it can also aid parents looking after their children in a more comfortable way.

The main problems our society facing today is that the surveillance technology developed much quicker than the law and regulations. Everyone can easily monitoring and videoing others without any approval which is definitely violating others privacy. Without an appropriate control and monitoring mechanism of those technology, it will lead to abused usage of the technology which go against the real meaning of surveillance. However, if surveillance technology is used correctly by the right person at the right place at the right time. It is positive and beneficial, permitting new levels of efficiency, productivity, convenience and comfort (Lyon 2002)


  1. David Lyon (2001) Surveillance Society Monitoring Everyday Life
  2. Fox, R. (2001) 'Someone to Watch Over Us: Back to the Panopticon?', Criminal Justice, 1(3): 251-276. Cited in Tony Fitzpatrick (2005) New Theories of Welfare. New York: Palgrave Macmillan
  3. Gary T. Marx (2002) 'What's New About the "New Surveillance"? Classifying for Change and Continuity', Surveillance & Society, Vol. 1, pp. 9-29
  4. Patrick W. Schmitz (2005) 'Workplace Surveillance, privacy protection, and efficiency wages', Labour Economics, Vol. 12, pp. 727-738
  5. Samantha Lee and Brian H. Kleiner (2003) 'Electronic Surveillance in the Workplace' Management Research News, Vol. 26, No 2/3/4, pp. 72-81
  6. Stephen B. Thacker and Ruth L. Berkelman (1988) 'Public Health Surveillance in the United States' , Epidemiological Reviews, Vol. 10, pp. 164-190
  7. Steven M. Teutsch and R.Elliott Churchhill (2000) Principle and Practice of Public Health Surveillance 2nd Edition
  8. Tony Fitzpatrick (2005) New Theories of Welfare. New York: Palgrave Macmillan
  9. William E. Halperin and Todd M. Fraizer (1985) 'Surveillance for the Effects of Workplace Exposure', Annu. Rev. Public Health, Vol. 6, pp. 419-432

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