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Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter June 20, 2020

Mass Surveillance: A Private Affair?

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Mass surveillance is a more real threat now than at any time in history. Digital communications and automated systems allow for the collection and processing of private information at a scale never seen before. Many argue that mass surveillance entails a significant loss of privacy. Others dispute that there is a loss of privacy if the information is only encountered by automated systems.

This paper argues that automated mass surveillance does not involve a significant loss of privacy. Through providing a definition of informational privacy as a matter of actual access of private information by one who can understand the meaning of that information, it follows that automated systems which lack understanding cannot of themselves diminish privacy. This is not to say that mass surveillance is unproblematic, though: it is deeply problematic. It is just that privacy is not the most significant of these problems.


I am very grateful to the guest editor, two anonymous reviewers, and the organisers and attendees at the Ethics of Mass Surveillance workshop at the Karlsruhe Institute for Technology, notably Frej Klem Thomsen, Nora Ni Loideain, Scott Robbins, and Patrick Taylor Smith for comments which have considerably improved the quality of this paper.


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Published Online: 2020-06-20
Published in Print: 2020-05-26

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