“Private Eyes Are Watching You” – Part Three

In the previous part of this series, I laid out the first situation of a thought experiment, where you are being constantly observed throughout your entire life, but are completely unaware and unaffected by this observation.

Now I want to lay out the second situation of the thought experiment.

Imagine you live in a controlled environment, like a biodome.  Due to some horrific situation, you are unable to ever leave the biodome, but it is a huge technological marvel that is the size of a small planet, so it doesn’t feel like you’re confined to a limited space at all.  Now imagine that everywhere you look, you see cameras capturing every angle, and on each camera, the little red light is on, letting you know that is recording.  Additionally, there are small, highly sensitive microphones everywhere you go, that can capture every sound made, even the sound of your breathing.  However, unbeknownst to you, the cameras are not actually recording, the microphones are not plugged in, there is no video feed going anywhere.  The cameras and microphones are simply props, made to look like they’re working, when in reality, they’re not doing anything at all.

The big question worth considering is if this situation is a violation of one’s privacy.  I will admit that to the person living there, it would definitely feel like privacy is violated.  However, the situation is clear that no one is actually seeing anything that is happening through the cameras and microphones.

In response to this question, some of my students responded that one’s mental well-being is violated by the constant feeling of being observed, and part of privacy is one’s mental well-being.  So privacy is being violated.  However, if one’s mental well-being is a part of privacy, we run into a problem when we consider the paranoid man.  A paranoid man may live his life in a state of constant concern that he’s being observed.  One may argue that the paranoid man does not have reason to think he’s being constantly observed while those in the biodome do.  Yet, if we asked the paranoid man, he would be able to give us good reasons (at least to him) as to why he thinks he’s being observed all the time.

This would likely lead to a discussion of what counts as a good reason for holding a belief.  One could argue that the paranoid man’s reasons are false, even if he finds them to be good reasons.  The same critique could be leveled against those in the biodome, as it is not the presence of the cameras and microphones themselves that lead one to be paranoid, but the belief that they are recording one’s actions and words.

Looking at this situation, it seems difficult to argue that one’s privacy is actually being violated.  It may feel that one’s privacy is violated, but I don’t see how it can be argued that it is actually violated.  Is there something I’m overlooking here?

In the next part, I’ll complete the thought experiment by examining which of the two situations we are more likely to choose for ourselves if forced to choose.


  1. Nick Kallimani says:

    Technically, the biodome experiment is not a violation of the right to privacy. However, it is evident that being placed in that scenario is extremely unsettling. I feel as if the biodome situation is a violation of other rights, possibly the right not to feel oppressed or misled, if such rights exist. There is also another possibility entirely. What if society had developed with the presence of these so called monitoring devices and people lacked any sense or desire for privacy as we know it? Given enough time, theoretically people may become comfortable with their peers knowing intimate details of their lives since they believe there is no hope of keeping such things private, effectively removing the concept of privacy from society. The thought of people not knowing occurrences in your life may become foreign entirely. Another possibility is the idea of privacy evolving to only encompass what is on one’s own mind.

    • joelaschwartz joelaschwartz says:

      You offer an interesting possibility Nick. However, I’m not sure that we will ever find such a society completely comfortable without undermining personal relationships. Parts Five and Six (which I’m presently working on) will get into the importance of having certain intimacy that is not shared with others who are not a part of that relationship.

      You could argue that our present society has very little actually privacy given the amount of surveillance that goes on, coupled with the permanent record of all activity done on the internet. Because we are not constantly reminded of these things, we feel like we have privacy when in many situations, we have much less than we think. Then again, if/when the time comes that we realize how much information is already known (or able to be know) by those with no connection, we’ll let the desire for privacy in those situations go by the wayside. However, I’m not sure we’ll ever be comfortable allowing those outside personal relationships to be able to share (in a way) in the benefits and intimacy of those relationships.

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