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Research

Audio: In Emergencies and Politics: A Sober Hobbesian Approach (Cambridge University Press, 2013), Tom Sorell argues that emergencies can justify types of action that would normally be regarded as wrong.

Surveillance. What, if anything, is wrong with surveillance? How does it affect privacy? Why value privacy anyway? Tom Sorell explains his position on these issues in this episode of the Philosophy Bites podcast.

‘Violation of Privacy and Law: the Case of Stalking’ (Tom Sorell and John Guelke)

There are many kinds of violation of privacy.[1] The human right to privacy is an acknowledgement of only some kinds, and perhaps not the most damaging ones. As articulated by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Article 17,[2] and the associated Human Rights Committee General Comment 16,[3] the right to privacy is a protection against surveillance of one’s home, monitoring of correspondence, and attacks on one’s reputation. Protection against surveillance, monitoring and attacks by whom? Human rights theory and practice focus primarily on abuses of state power.[4] They tend not to take account of disputes between individuals or small scale abuses of power where they fall short of assault. So while Article 17 recognizes natural persons as possible violators of privacy, nosey neighbours, voyeurs, or spouses concerned with infidelity probably lie well outside its main ambit. Its focus is on arbitrary official intrusion and disruption, disproportionate police surveillance, and disproportionate data retention by governments. Encroachments by the authorities on parental rights to determine the education and religion of their children and even the size of their families are also included. In all of these cases it is against the state that privacy needs defending.

In this paper we shall be concerned with violations of privacy by agents other than governments. We shall be concerned with apolitical invasions of apolitical privacy—“apolitical” in the sense of invasions which are detached from either the invader’s or the invaded person’s playing a citizenly role – as voter, say—or an activist role in a political party, opposition movement. We also distinguish apolitical invasions of privacy from invasions of privacy of those holding political office, and from surveillance by a state apparatus or the personal representative of a state apparatus.

‘Conceptualizing Serious Crime’ (Tom Sorell)

What counts as a more or a less serious crime? This paper explores that question in the light of several plausible claims about how police rightly operate: (1) orthodox preventive policing measures are more justified the more serious the crime to be prevented; (2) the more serious the crime, and the more imminent it is thought to be on the basis of evidence, the more intrusive and liberty-limiting the preventive measure can be–other things being equal; (3) very intrusive and liberty-limiting preventive measures are not justified for all crimes; (4) very intrusive and liberty-limiting preventive measures are not justified for low-level crimes.

‘Police Scrutiny, Ethics, and Imposition of Risk’ (Christopher Nathan)

In specifying rules limiting police scrutiny, there is a tendency to focus on the limits of legitimate scrutiny, case by case. For example, one might claim that in order to enact a stop and search procedure, should an officer have ‘reasonable suspicion’ that an individual is carrying a weapon. I will argue that the distribution of police scrutiny of citizens is also of ethical concern, because scrutiny involves an imposition of a risk. This distributive element is a logically separate dimension that does not receive the attention it deserves.

‘Presuming Harmlessness and Preventing Serious Harm’ (Christopher Nathan)

Should the state presume that people are innocent? Harmless? What would that mean? Some express scepticisim about ‘preventive policing’ and ‘preventing justice’ on the grounds that it contravenes the proper attitude that states ought to show towards their citizens. I express a sceptical note about such objections. The grounds of proper limits to preventive justice are more mundane.

What is Wrong with Fishing Expeditions?(Christopher Nathan)

The paradigm of regulation of personal data involves focus on the consent surrounding each item of information. This framework is insufficiently alive to possible and actual technological developments involving data fusion and long-term storage. Instead of regulating the use of individual items of data we should focus on the functions and goals of analysis. I examine two established concepts that might fulfil this task: ‘probable cause’ and ‘due process’.

‘Policing and Punishment: On Informant Recruitment and Auxiliary Offences’ (Christopher Nathan)

The police force faces a complex of options in deciding how to deploy its legal powers. Both as an institution and as a set of individuals, it (rightly) possesses significant discretion in determining who will be prosecuted, and for what. I will focus on two areas that emphasise the range of choices available: (i) the recruitment of informants by way of a threat to prosecute, and (ii) the entrepreneurial use of legal powers in order to disrupt criminals. Such strategies, I argue here, exhibit properties that render them susceptible to the same high normative standards that we apply to cases of punishment. Those standards include: (a) the serious wrong of misapplication, and (b) the value of consistency. The implications of this claim may be radical; I conclude by giving reason to think that they are not.


[1] Most philosophical accounts include the privacy of particular physical places (see e.g. Scanlon (1975), or views classified by Tavani (2007) as ‘restricted access’ views of privacy), some others include informational or decisional privacy (matters of conscience) as well. For an overview of these positions see DeCew (1997) and (2006). For an important denial of the claim that there are distinctive privacy interests in any of these cases see Thomson (1975).

[2] CCPR General Comment No. 16: The right to respect of privacy, family, home and correspondence, and protection of honour and reputation (Art. 17) : 08/04/1988. http://www.unhchr.ch/tbs/doc.nsf/(Symbol)/23378a8724595410c12563ed004aeecd?Opendocument

[3] UN Human Rights Committee (HRC), CCPR General Comment No. 16: Article 17 (Right to Privacy), The Right to Respect of Privacy, Family, Home and Correspondence, and Protection of Honour and Reputation, 8 April 1988, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/453883f922.html [accessed 2 February 2014]

[4] See Anderson (2008) for an argument that the centrality of state power to upholding privacy leads to an inevitable tension in the concept of any kind of ‘right to privacy’.