The Lab leader is putting a surveillance camera inside the lab to protect some precious devices bought recently. The viewpoint of the camera covers most of the lab and shows clearly the lab members 24h per day and 7 days a week. The camera is only accessed by the lab leader.

is it ethical to put such a camera inside the lab?

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    The answer depends on many factors wihch should be added. E.g. jurisdiction, whether the data is recorded, if yes if there are rules for deletion, if non-employees are present, ... – OBu Jan 20 at 12:31
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    @OBu, certainly the legality depends on those things. – Buffy Jan 20 at 21:54
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    You should also have a look at the legal side of this question. However, this depends strongly at the country in which you are in. Could you please specify this further? – J-Kun Jan 21 at 16:42

This largely depends on disclosure --- in cases where you record employees at work there are ethical and legal obligations relating to notification and disclosure. The legal rules depend on your jurisdiction, but in most jurisdictions this situation is regulated by some kind of legislation on surveillance. (E.g., in NSW in Australia this would be regulated by the Workplace Surveillance Act 2005.) To check on the legality of this practice you should consult relevant surveillance legislation in your jurisdiction. Regardless, your lab leader should certainly contact the university legal counsel before installing a surveillance camera.

As to the broader ethical question of surveillance (as opposed to its legality), there is a reasonable literature on this question in the business ethics journals (see e.g., Ottensmeyer and Heroux 1991, Fairweather 1999, Halpern, Reville and Grunewald 2008, and Hadjimatheou 2014). I will not attempt to paraphrase this issue here since it is a large issue which is best understood by reference to the literature.

  • Thanks for your post. Which of the four references you indicate, would you counsel to read first as an introduction to the subject? (Yes, time constraints...) – Did Jan 21 at 9:37
  • Halpern et al (2008) is most directly associated with your question, so I'd start with that. – Ben Jan 21 at 11:51
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    (I am not the OP, but thanks all the same.) – Did Jan 21 at 12:28
  • Oops: "Download ($43.95)"... Fortunately: whatthelawprofessorsaid.com/files/2941320/… – Did Jan 21 at 12:33

Yes, it is certainly ethical, so long as everyone knows it is there. It doesn't even necessarily show lack of trust in the regular lab denizens. An alternative, of course, would be to pay someone, a guard, to be always present.

I suppose it is possible that the leader's motives go beyond protecting the equipment, of course, but even that isn't problematic if a record of lab activities might be needed to assure against possible bad behavior, such as, for example harassment. In some situations the lab work may be so sensitive that a record needs to be kept.

As noted in comments on this page, the legality may be in question. But that varies from place to place.

To make it even clearer, if the camera is put in place without the knowledge of the participants it would be unethical. If the camera were put into a public area then it would also be unethical in the absence of come compelling reason that would mitigate it.

If the camera were put in place to monitor the people and their performance, rather than protect equipment, the situation becomes more difficult to asses. But it would probably be unwise to do it, whether ethical or not, because of the strong negative reaction that it would cause and which is evidenced in the comments here.

The ethical judgment I made is, therefore, very limited to a particular set of conditions as expressed in the question asked.

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    It should be noted that - whether you think it's ethical or not - video surveillance of your employees may be illegal depending on jurisdiction. In the described case for example I'm fairly certain that it would be illegal in Germany. – Maeher Jan 20 at 12:03
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    Sorry but "ethical, [as] long as everyone knows it is there" is an extremely short-sighted approach of the question. – Did Jan 20 at 16:59
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    You don't really explain why you think it's appropriate to use camera surveillance in the lab; you just claim it is, period. Or am I missing something? – henning Jan 20 at 18:26
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    Your argument seems to be that, if the "observed" people know they are "observed", then it is ethical to observe them. Sorry but, to me, this is a fallacy. Let us imagine a situation such that we cross every morning in the street. On day D-1, I calmly explain to you that the next day, when we shall cross, I will punch you in the face. Do you think the cops would dismiss your complaint if, on day D, we do cross as usual and I do punch you in the face? After all, I warned you, so my ethics, if I understand your logic, is impeccable... – Did Jan 20 at 20:29
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    Glad to know. Care to explain how they are? – Did Jan 20 at 21:32

If the lab ever uses human subjects, it's important to keep this camera in mind as a potential breach of confidentiality. Most IRBs would (a) want to know that subjects are being recorded, (b) want the camera mentioned in the consent form, and (c) want a plan for the storage and disposal of recordings that include subjects.

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