Rick Sarre speaks on our Surveillance Society


After soliciting the help of the public lead to the swift identification of the Boston Bombing suspects, the Internet seems to be swarming with debates over public surveillance. Rick Sarre, professor at the University of South Australia, spoke at the Webster University George Herbert Walker School of Business & Technology to discuss the pros and cons of surveillance technology.

Sarre began his presentation with a story of his time spent in East Germany in 1979. After he crossed through the checkpoint from West to East Berlin, Sarre said he left with a new impression of what a free society was. Sarre recalled thinking, the difference between the free west, and the communist east was the amount of surveillance.

“There were people sitting in these little boxes, looking through slits like this, watching us like this,” Sarre said, boxing his hands around his eyes. “There were all watching us, and we said that’s the difference—watching, surveilling, looking at us, seeing our movements, testing our motives, checking on us, this was the difference between a recognized civilized society and an evil communist society, the level of surveillance.”

“Back in 1979, I came away from that experience with my colleagues saying, you know the big difference between our free society, and our robust western democracy is the level of surveillance,” Sarre said.

Sarre said today’s reality has changed drastically. According to Sarre, the debate shouldn’t be whether or not to have surveillance technology, but how to govern such technologies.

“The issue therefor is regulation through careful and appropriate management of these tools. How best do we manage what is unfolding, and how do we know what’s unfolding?” Sarre asked.

Sarre said citizens are far more willing to give up privacy for security today, citing our willingness to go through invasive security at an airport, posting our lives on social medias, using text messaging and credit cards. According to Sarre, people of the 21st century are more than willing to give up privacy for convenience.

“There seems to be a recognition that people don’t mind other people knowing what you’re doing,” Sarre said.

Sarre said, “It’s all about the balance. The juggernaut can’t be stopped. But running out of control would not be a society we would want to live in. So what’s the balance?” Sarre asked. “How does a society find an appropriate balance between the rights of its citizens to enjoy some degree of privacy and the legitimate interest we have in observing, filming, data mining, and monitoring people?”

Sarre said the global market is already saturated with surveillance technology, and methods of surveillance will only increase as private businesses enhance ways to utilize new technologies. According to Sarre, there is no turning back from becoming a surveillance society, but people should be concerned with the law falling behind technologies.

“The challenge for us is to determine the limits of surveillance and how to get that message across to those who have the power to regulate it,” Sarre said. “Another words, I don’t have the answer, all I can do is to highlight, because I don’t think many people are highlighting, the potential for abuse of this massive surveillance society we are moving towards, by the same token recognizing one, its not going to go away, and two, it has massive benefits all of us are enjoying.”

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