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This UEL academic is using Greek philosophy to challenge workplace spying

Software Engineering in practice

Learn how ancient ideas can help you think about CCTV 

Being thousands of years old, Greek philosophy never had to worry about CCTV and 24-hour surveillance. The likes of Aristotle and Plato did not have to contend with the internet or social media, and the issues of privacy that arise. 

Yet one forward-thinking academic at the University of East London (UEL) is using ancient Greek philosophy to challenge how we think about surveillance and the new frontier of workplace spying. 

Speaking at a recent conference on social media, Dr Darren Ellis of UEL’s School of Social Sciences starts with the recent high-profile court case of Bărbulescu v Romania to help make his point. 

“There has been some recent concern, perhaps anxiety, or even paranoia about private internet use at the workplace and employers’ rights to monitor this activity,” says Dr Ellis. 

Employees use websites and social media at work all the time, but for one employee in Romania, Mr Bogdan Mihai Bărbulescu, it led to him being sacked. His employer had monitored his use of Yahoo Messenger, producing 45 pages of his private correspondence made during working hours. 

His case reached the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled that there had been no violation of his right to private life. 

The ruling led to a flurry of alarming headlines about a new era of spying, with employers snooping on emails and WhatsApp conversations.

“The Guardian asked why people easily understood the issues at stake when it came to the workplace, but do not extend the same suspicious to governments,” notes Dr Ellis. 

“It is a fair point perhaps. It seems that Bărbulescu got more traction in the news than what the Guardian described as the ‘apathy with which most of Fleet Street greeted Edward Snowden’s revelation’.” 

When it comes to the workplace, telephones can be tapped and conversations recorded. Computer software offers such techniques as keystroke monitoring. Screenshots are easily captured, emails can be listed, sorted and the content read, and CCTV in the workplace is business as usual.

Employers fear a loss of productivity and profitability, and even reputational damage, if employees are sending personal emails, using social media and shopping online during work hours. 

Dr Ellis, who has researched surveys and opinion polls, says that there is not much concern about government surveillance. “It is typically understood as making us all more secure,” he explains. 

“There is often a lot of not so conscious anxiety about surveillance practices.

“It is not simply ‘apathy’ towards the sorts of surveillance revealed by Snowden, as the Guardian suggests, but more what was understood by classical Stoicism as a form of apatheia.

Stoicism, the Greek school of philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium in the third century BC, emphasises a style of life focused on virtue, ethics, and the right ordering of emotions to better understand logos (reason). 
“Apathy tends to denote a negative disposition in terms of one having a lack of concern, indifference, or the absence of any wish to do anything,” explains Dr Ellis. 

“Whereas apatheia is a psychological disposition concerned with eradicating emotional responses to external forces that one can do nothing about. In other words, it is a way of reducing conscious anxiety. 

Dr Ellis’ arguments suggest that the processes of adopting a disposition of apatheia is particularly relevant in relation to types of surveillance that do not appear to immediately impinge upon a person, such as the data that the National Security Agency collects. 
“Although one may be initially affected by some external stimulus, what is classically understood as the primus motus (first movement) or the ancient Greek term propatheia, it is the secondary cognitive judgment that was all important for the Stoics.

“The cognitive judgment (second movement) can be trained through what seems to be a form of cognitive behavioural therapy, a rational and premeditated form of suppression.”

To explain his point, Dr Ellis cites the example of CCTV in public places, which is regarded as being there to discourage crime. The NSA and government agencies collect data to counter terrorism. Personal data collected from social media is anonymised and sold so that we can continue to use it without any financial cost.

These examples invoke an initial alarm or worry, which is then suppressed or resolved with a follow-up thought rationalising it. 

“Hence one learns to develop a psychological disposition through which any associated emotional excitation dissipates, whether joy or pain for example.

“When I interviewed people, many subscribed to the ‘if you haven’t done anything wrong, then you have nothing to hide’ idea.

“Yet this is usually in response to the everyday surveillance that is thought to be instituted for our protection, security and at worst to further understand consumption habits. 

“A culture of workplace techno-security may give way to misconceptions that they are instituted for everyone’s benefit, to increase productivity, and decrease the potential for employees to commit crime.

“Although we see some alarm now, when it comes to workplace snooping, perhaps it is a matter of time before the public’s Stoic attitudes towards around-the-clock workplace surveillance becomes normal.

“On the other hand, because this form of surveillance is likely to be much more palpable than other forms of everyday surveillance, as it is more refined and targeted in the workplace, it may therefore increase anxiety (suspicion and paranoia) to the point that it is very difficult to suppress, manage and contain through dispositions of apatheia.”

Dr Ellis is the co-author with Dr Ian Tucker of Social Psychology of Emotion, published in 2015 by SAGE.