The Ethics of Spy Cameras

The use of spy cameras was made popular by exposes made by the media about some controversial incidents happening around us. We laud the effort put in by the journalists as we begin to see the true stories behind what we thought are just ordinary incidents. And the secret films made for a good TV show.


With technological innovation, what used to be an instrument that is only available to just a few has become so widely used. It also comes in different names: spy cam, nanny cam, dash cam, surveillance camera, and so on. Today, anyone can purchase a spy camera in any gadget store. You can be even get spy cameras online. And nobody even asks what it will be used for. And that’s the rub…


Uses of Spy Cameras

The most common use of a spy cam is for security, whether it is national, local, business, or personal. It is not uncommon nowadays to see cameras installed in street corners, convenience stores, homes, and offices. Most people give their silent approval of this gadget because they believe in the purpose by which these cameras were installed.


Hidden cameras are also widely used by broadcast journalists when they record stories that they deem of national or public importance, like exposés about corrupt government officials, mistreatment of the elderly, unsanitary

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working conditions, fraudulent insurance sales practices, and a lot more issues affecting public welfare.


As it is readily available, ordinary people also have taken advantage of the use of concealed video devices. They use them to produce their own clips that they can post in social media venues like YouTube. Truly, a spy camera has many practical and valuable uses.


The Question of Ethics


In spite of the popularity of this gadget, many people still question the use of hidden cameras. The argument always revolves around preserving the privacy of an individual whose footage was taken using a hidden camera.


Up to what extent does the use of this spy gadget be considered legal and ethical?


It is easy to take sides on this issue if the purpose by which the camera was used was clear. Nobody would question a convenience store owner if he installed cameras all over his business. No objections are raised on the multitudes of camera in casinos. Everyone knew what they are for. The use of spy cams, therefore, is ethical if it follows the “rules of behavior based on ideas about what is morally good and bad” (Merriam-Webster).


Does This Qualify Under “The-end-justifies-the-means” Adage?


No better argument has been set against this adage than in the movie “Enemy of the State.” It presented two uses of the spy cam, both of which represent the whole argument here. The first one was the hidden camera used to record the migration habits of ducks, which unintentionally captured the killing of the congressman. The other was the use of surveillance to pursue the main character Robert Clayton Dean.


For everyone, the images captured in the first scenario represent something that everyone agrees to: a visual proof that can correct a wrongdoing. The second is something that is feared, abhorred, and detested. Why? Because it encroaches to the very core of our own privacy!


Remember, the network of surveillance equipment in that movie was set up to protect lives and to apprehend terrorists. It was a noble idea. In this time of uncertainty and chaos, it is even a welcome initiative. But what made it unacceptable was how the technology was used to perpetrate something personal, selfish, and destructive in the name of national security.


Another argument against the justification of using spy camera is in the legal case of Food Lion versus ABC Network. The whole case stemmed from an undercover revelation made by ABC reporters on a reported unsanitary handling of food in Food Lion. The trial judge dismissed the food company’s damage claim on the airing of Prime Time Live airing of the investigative report, but allowed the case of fraud and trespassing. The jury found for the plaintiff and penalized the broadcast network $5.5 million in damages.


The legal system saw the merit of the exposé in safeguarding public welfare. This is the reason why the judge dismissed the case against the airing of the episode. On the same note, the jury did not agree with the method by which the information was obtained. It was a brave undertaking, but the broadcast undercover reporters misrepresented themselves in order to gain access to the food company’s facility.


What’s the Verdict on Spy Camera?


Owning and using a spy camera, per se, is not bad, illegal, or unethical. It is how you use it which puts it into question. It can be analogous to owning a gun, especially in the United States where it is covered under the Second Amendment. What makes it controversial is when you point that gun towards another person.


In the words of Bob Steele, a former media reporter and executive producer, when he talked about the use of hidden camera in broadcasting, “Hidden camera reporting is a justifiable weapon in the journalist’s arsenal, but it must be used wisely and judiciously.” The same applies to private owners of spy cams. Yes, anyone can own and use surveillance equipment, but it must be used within the bounds of ethics and legality.

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