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3D rendering illustration of security camera in classroom at school. CCTV camera on ceiling children protection concept.
3D rendering illustration of security camera in classroom at school. CCTV camera on ceiling children protection concept.
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No, the Surveillance State isn’t Better in the Hands of the Public

Matt Walsh's suggestion that cameras be installed in every classroom is understandable, but it won't teach children to live in a free society

In the modern era, cameras are everywhere. Nearly every person — man, woman, or child — carries a high-end video camera with them everywhere they go on their cell phone. This proliferation of cheap surveillance equipment has caused society to largely re-think the ethics of surveillance.

In previous generations, sound and video recording devices were expensive. While recording equipment in general was not out of the reach of ordinary people, miniaturized equipment was, and having enough of it to actually “surveil” someone or something was quite expensive. Today, I can have nondescript cameras set up in each room in my house for just a few hundred dollars. This ability for ordinary people to engage in constant surveillance of their own life and property has unconsciously changed the outlook of many people towards surveillance. 

Today, surveillance is considered the norm and not the exception. We wonder why something hasn’t been recorded, rather than wonder why something has. For any incident that occurs, we expect hundreds of people watching with their cameras turned on.

While most people are still unwilling to allow the government to overtly surveil them, most people are so used to being surveilled by other members of the public that they view government surveillance as a joke. Regarding data privacy, for instance, there’s an old joke that goes, “I don’t mind if the NSA is snooping around, I just wish they’d send me my backup files when my hard drive crashes.” We don’t want the government snooping around, but we kind of imagine that they are doing it anyway.

The problem with the surveillance state is that, even though it isn’t always beneficial to the government, society needs private spaces. We are humans, and we need spaces that are ours. We need to be able to speak freely with our friends, even when that speech doesn’t match what the government wants us to say. We need the freedom to make mistakes in private. Who wants their every mistake recorded and replayed for all eternity?

While most people generally agree about this for private citizens, there is a disturbing trend advocating for the surveillance of public officials. Let me say at the outset: I don’t have any special trust in government officials. My argument is not that they are more (or even equally) moral or trustworthy. My argument is that the society that a surveillance state creates is not one that I want to live in, even if it is run by the public instead of the state.

For example, Matt Walsh recently suggested that cameras be installed in every classroom so that parents can peek in. This sounds like a good idea — parents should know what is happening in classrooms, and schools seem to be increasingly trying to shut parents out of their child’s education, often because the school knows that what it is doing would be at odds with what the parent desires for their children. While I agree that such a situation is at odds with the goals of a public education, the solution is not the surveillance state.

The biggest problem with this suggestion is the normalization of surveillance. Do we want children to be raised in an environment where being observed by anyone with cameras at any time is a normal thing? Children growing up in this situation, where they spend seven hours a day with cameras on them for thirteen years of schooling, may not even be able to recognize the problems with them being surveilled as adults. People forget that the majority of the population spends their developmental years in this building, and the way that the environment is structured matters.

Another problem is with the surveillance itself. Videos mean that teachers have to spend their entire day on guard. While I agree that teachers, like anybody else, should always do the right thing, the fact is that people don’t. People make mistakes. Even more, people do things that, when isolated on a video clip, look bad even when they aren’t, and the video clip makes any claim look valid. Such a system is easily abused. I don’t want my worst moments forcibly memorialized on videotape any more than anyone else, and therefore I should extend the same privilege to others.

Additionally, the students themselves need some amount of privacy. People who spend a lot of time together bond and have meaningful conversations. This includes student-class conversations. Having outsiders videotaping your every comment would necessarily make students less likely to speak in class, and even less likely to share deeper, more personal thoughts with the class or the teacher. It is valid to wonder if this should be happening with a government official (the teacher) or with parents. But, if the student is being schooled at a public school, we have to recognize what comes along with that — they are going to be spending a large amount of time with the people at the school. Asking them not to form bonds and connect privately to the people there is doing a disservice to the children who need to feel a strong connection to those they are with.

I do think that Matt Walsh is pointing to an important problem — there are many teachers that are abusing the responsibility we are giving them, and there are many administrators who forget that “public school” means that the school is a servant of the public. But Walsh’s solution will not teach students to live free in a free society, but rather that “big brother” watching is just a normal part of life that they should accept.

Jonathan Bartlett

Senior Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Jonathan Bartlett is a senior software R&D engineer at Specialized Bicycle Components, where he focuses on solving problems that span multiple software teams. Previously he was a senior developer at ITX, where he developed applications for companies across the US. He also offers his time as the Director of The Blyth Institute, focusing on the interplay between mathematics, philosophy, engineering, and science. Jonathan is the author of several textbooks and edited volumes which have been used by universities as diverse as Princeton and DeVry.

No, the Surveillance State isn’t Better in the Hands of the Public