Communications surveillance

Reasons For The Rise Of Communications Surveillance

Communications surveillance is when communication is intercepted by a third party while being transmitted to the intended recipients. It involves collecting, monitoring, intercepting, retaining and preserving information communicated to a recipient or group of recipients.

The interception may be initiated by a law enforcement agency or private party, and could be authorised or unauthorised.

Origins of Communications Surveillance

The earliest instances of organised communications surveillance were during World War II, when the Americans and the British collaborated to intercept enemy transmissions.

An organisation known as ECHELON was set up jointly by the US and the UK in 1945 for tapping into cable systems. The activity had a codename, SHAMROCK, which continued for 30 years until outlawed as a fallout of the Watergate scandal.

Communications surveillance is now very sophisticated, with state-of-the-art hacking software and spyware, playing a prominent role in government and non-government activity.

Communications Surveillance And Ethics

Communications systems are now more complex and accessible than ever before. Moreover, with the increased use of communication channels on social media and the internet, users are increasingly aware of their right to privacy.

Communications surveillance is viewed as a violation of privacy and even a criminal offence in several countries. However, most countries have data protection laws in place, safeguarding the sanctity of information in private and even public communications.

These laws are normally very stringent, so those engaging in communications surveillance need to take care to operate within the framework of the law. That said, there is an increasing need for communications surveillance in a number of areas.

The Increasing Need for Communications Surveillance

Although communications surveillance is such a controversial subject, many entities use it, for a number of reasons, making it grow in importance. We list below some reasons for its growth:

Data Protection Concerns

An organisation’s internal data, regardless of the level of sensitivity, needs to be stored securely. Apart from data classified as “public”, communications surveillance can monitor data usage and sharing, whether it be a public or private organisation.


The need to combat terrorism and the threat to internal and international security supersedes all other rights and privileges. Accordingly, state and law enforcement agencies are actively engaged in monitoring, gathering and accessing data on potential communication by terrorists.
The challenge here is to balance the need to monitor electronic communications within the framework of human rights laws.

Meeting Regulatory Requirements

Organisations such as banks, insurance companies and other related financial services providers have access to personal and sensitive customer data. They are bound by law to keep a regular check on all data collected and held by them.

Communications surveillance can ensure there is no misuse or unauthorised sharing of data. This has become the need of the hour in this age of instant messaging and countless data-sharing platforms.

Standardisation Of Communications Systems

To create a streamlined and efficient communications system, a company needs to use limited communication channels. An organisation has the dual responsibility of rolling out a clear communication policy to its employees and ensuring its enforcement.

A communications surveillance system can monitor the channels of communication being used by employees. The company can then address cases of unauthorised communication channels or authorise those that have a valid reason for being used.

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Communications surveillance is, has been and always will be a controversial issue. However, there are several ethical aspects involved in this field that are highly technologically advanced.

There is a strong case for as well as against communications surveillance due to human rights considerations. Therefore, those who use it need to be aware of the laws relating to it and operate within the framework of those laws.

But the fact remains that communications surveillance plays an important role in the market today and, indeed, in the world as a whole, and its importance is growing day by day.