Fall 2020

C├ęcile Fabre

Senior Research Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, and Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Oxford

Mass Surveillance

Temple University, Online
November 6, 2021, 3-4:40p


In the final chapter of my book on the ethics of espionage and counter intelligence, I address the ethics of placing entire populations under mass surveillance for the purposes of ascertaining who, amongst them, is planning directly to take part in rights-violating policies at the behest of or in deference to foreign actors. That intelligence agencies have long collected information about ordinary people – notably their own citizens – is not new. But if we are to believe what Edward Snowden leaked to the world, they do so, thanks to the internet and the power of computers, to an unprecedented extent, and not just about their citizens but also about foreign citizenries. The word ‘mass’ denotes both the sheer number of individuals – in effect, virtually all of us at any one time – on whom intelligence agencies can spy upon, and the sheer amount and range of information about those individuals which they can collect and analyze. I proceed as follows. I begin with a brief overview of contemporary practices of mass surveillance as described by Edward Snowden and mount what I take to be the best possible case in their favour. I then consider the claim that mass surveillance constitutes an unacceptable violation of the right to privacy. I next consider the claim that mass surveillance practices manifest and entrench existing unfair inequalities. I argue that the privacy objection is not as decisive as we think, and that the unfair inequalities objection is powerful but contingent on extant practices and the background of injustices against which they are deployed. 


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This talk is generously sponsored by a grant from the Center for the Study of Force and Diplomacy (CENFAD) at Temple University.