The180·The 180

The case for "total surveillance"

While some argue the federal government's anti-terror surveillance goes too far and erodes our right to privacy, we'll hear from a professor who says more surveillance could actually be good for our health.
Would more cameras and online surveillance make us healthier and safer? (CBC)
Listen9:23

Last week the federal government tabled a new anti-terrorism bill known as the Security of Canada Information Sharing Act. The new bill is supposed to help government agencies make better use of the data they gather so they can catch more potential terrorists.

Most of the criticism of the bill has centred on questions of the liberty and privacy of Canadians. A recent CBC investigations suggests the government is already digging deep into Canadian data in search of crime and conspiracy. With Canadians spending so much time voluntarily sharing their lives online, there's a lot of raw material, which adds to a growing anxiety that Big Brother really is watching us.

But is that such a bad thing?

Stuart Armstrong was born in Canada, but now lives in the United Kingdom, largely considered one of the most surveilled countries on earth. As Research Fellow in the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University's Oxford Martin School, Armstrong says we need to consider the possibility that mass surveillance is good for us.

Cameras and drones are becoming cheaper and cheaper and our information is sloshing around on the internet. So if that is going to be our future, it might seem more sensible to build a world given that, than to try futilely to stop it."- Stuart Armstrong

He argues that a state of "total surveillance" would not only provide security benefits, and simplify commercial transactions, it would also be a boon to public health.

What is total surveillance?

Armstrong says the idea of a total surveillance state is more a buzzword than a prospect in our immediate futures, but he describes it as a state where most people's lives "are transparent to any entity" that takes the effort to investigate them. He says most people are under 24-7 surveillance now because of the phones we carry, and the information we share on line through social networking, and our purchases.

How could this be good for our health?

Stuart Armstrong says he could imagine a number of scenarios, including tracking individuals after natural disasters like earthquakes, and for tracking and limiting the spread of infectious diseases and pandemics.

"At the very moment when that a patient first goes to hospital and they identify what it is, if you have access to the past recordings of where they've been and who they've been in contact with, you could plausibly inform immediately anyone they've been in contact with, for instance, and either isolate them, or tell them about the risk. That's a kind of utopian or dystopian mass-camera, perfect tracking.

What would we be giving up?

The Oxford University researcher says most of us share so much information that our idea of privacy is distorted anyway. He also argues that there can be value in having so much surveillance that everyone, even those who might use the resulting information for nefarious purposes, know that they can't get away with anything. So when asked about how anything good could come of total surveillance, he says it would be better to go that route by choice than to allow someone else to impose it on us.

"First of all, we might be ending up there anyway. Cameras and drones are becoming cheaper and cheaper and our information is sloshing around on the internet," he explains. "So if that is going to be our future, it might seem more sensible to build a world given that, than to try futilely to stop it."

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