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Surveillance is the collection, processing and dissemination of information that will be used to identify and respond to the target being monitored.


Means of surveillance

Surveillance techniques include electronic listening, electronic observation, visual observation, aerial monitoring, satellite imagery of land and sea, computer monitoring, social network analysis, telephone and cell phone monitoring, closed circuit TV (CCTV), data mining, biometrics, postal interception, human intelligence and other methods.

Surveillance can be conducted by any entity whether it be public (national or local governments) or private (corporations, criminals and other private investigation).

Uses of surveillance

While much has been made in reference to surveillance to combat terrorism, the rationales for surveillance are as numerous as the means employed. Surveillance is used for military and national security; anti-crime initiatives, such as drug trafficking and counterfeiting; homeland security; immigration, search and rescue; enforcement of environmental laws; loss prevention – retail, corporate, industrial; home security, child security, elder care; industrial espionage, among others.

Regulating surveillance

Surveillance, in and of itself, is a neutral activity. One can sit in a park and “people watch.” However, surveillance is often surreptitious. When used by a government entity, national laws govern implementation. For example, use of surveillance in the United States falls within the realm of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution. When used by a private entity, most countries have laws governing surveillance activities such as entering private property (trespassing) and use of recording devices (e.g., wiretapping).

With increased fears of global terrorism, laws around the world are trending toward increased flexibility in a government’s use of surveillance techniques: the BKA-Gesetz law in Germany, the FRA surveillance law in Sweden, the Surveillance Devices Act in Australia and many others around the world. This trend exists despite a strong, global activist movement for privacy protection, expanding on Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: no one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence.

Laws passed by the United States Congress include the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) enacted in 1978 and the PATRIOT Act of October 2001 which enhanced the government’s authority under FISA. While these two acts specifically apply to foreign intelligence, they and other laws have been broadly used to gather domestic intelligence to address criminal activity.

Ethical concerns

With the increase of electronic communication and technologies such as body imaging, ethical questions regarding surveillance abound. Can an employer read employee email? from the company account? from a personal account? Does the possible misuse of whole body imaging devices to store images outweigh the advantages to airport security?

Additional resources


Author: Rosalinda Sanquiche