Imagine you’re browsing the web one day, following a trail of mindless clicks, and you wind up on a website that’s showing footage of a bedroom. There’s someone in it: a man organizing laundry, going about his day, seemingly unaware that you can see him. Don’t worry, the site explains, this man (let’s call him Larry) will never know that he’s on camera. Now Larry is folding his underwear, and you’re asking yourself whether it’s really ethical to watch.
Now imagine Larry is a brown bear. And instead of folding his Jockeys, he’s fishing in a river, blissfully unaware of your existence. Just like Larry the human, Larry the bear will never know he’s being watched. These two scenarios probably feel different to you. But why?
There are hundreds, probably thousands, of animal-cams that you can access right now from the comfort of your own home. You can watch bears feed, penguins swim, pandas tumble, and elephants slurp. Pet-owners around the world can log into apps to watch their beloved, furry family members remotely. Farms and wildlife biologists use facial recognition to keep track of animals. Documentary filmmakers install camera traps to capture footage of elusive creatures like Siberian tigers.
Meanwhile there are raging debates about violations of human privacy. We debate the trade-offs inherent in technologies such as cell phone tracking, school surveillance cameras, and always-on listening devices. There are laws about how and when you can record someone. Where I live, facial recognition is banned. In most places, you cannot film human Larry in his bedroom folding his underwear without his permission. But you can watch bear Larry with complete impunity.
As conversations around the protection and invasion of privacy have come to the forefront of our daily lives, perhaps it’s time to ask: Might nonhuman animals deserve some privacy, too? And if so, how can we give it to them?
In human-based privacy debates, there are two modes of argumentation: I’ll call them harm and ethics. These are not inseparable, but they do rest on different measures. Questions of harm are based on impact: What could go wrong? Who could be hurt by this observation? In the human context, we’re reminded of terrible outcomes of surveillance, like the 2010 death of college student Tyler Clementi, who died by suicide after his roommate secretly filmed him having sex with another man. Facial-recognition opponents cite the potential for false positives that incorrectly finger suspects or the potential for the technology to be used to track and punish political dissidents.
When it comes to animals, there may well be harm done when they are watched too closely. Animals in zoos may have no way of escaping human eyes, and some adopt different behaviors as a result. Cotton-top tamarins in visitor-facing exhibits engage in less social behavior like play, sex, and physical contact than those housed “off exhibit” and away from people. Chimpanzees become more aggressive to fellow chimps. Lion-tailed macaques do more pacing and “self-biting” in direct proportion to human visitor levels. In one zoo, as visitor density increased, so did orangutans’ propensity to cover their heads with paper sacks.
That’s not to say these findings are always unequivocal. Some studies conclude that human visitors have no effect at all on animals or that the responses they produce aren’t clearly negative. Penguins, for example, may end up spending more time underwater. (Is that so bad, if you’re a penguin?) A second study of orangutans found no evidence of increased face-hiding behavior; instead, it said, the animals paid no mind to visitors. But even David Attenborough, the award-winning animal watcher, has pushed for more privacy at zoos. In particular, he says, gorillas “guard their privacy;” so maybe “people should not be allowed to be behind big sheets of glass but look behind peepholes so that the gorillas don’t realize [they are being watched].”
Even if the animals don’t know they are being watched (or tracked), the data they generate can be used to hurt them. In Minnesota, anglers reportedly tried to gain access to data from a publicly funded project that put transmitters on northern pike. (They did not succeed.) In 2013, poachers in India attempted to hack into data from a GPS-collared Bengal tiger in the Panna Tiger Reserve.
What about our friend, Larry the bear? In that scenario, Larry is completely unaware that he’s being watched around the world, so the surveillance is, in a certain sense, benign. (No one is doing anything to Larry.) This brings us to the second way of thinking about privacy, which gets us into a more foundational question of philosophical ethics.
Is Larry harmed by being the unwitting star of an animal reality show? To answer this question, we must (finally) nail down what we mean by privacy. It won’t be easy. Nearly every paper, book, and article you’ll ever read about privacy acknowledges, at some point, that the definition of the term is relatively muddy. “What is privacy and why does it belong to us?” writes Marty Roth in his book Contours of Privacy. “Is it an enclosure, an order of things? More particularly, what in the enclosure does the word ‘private’ point to: the space enclosed, the contents of that space, or the condition of untouchability that seems as if it does or should apply to those contents?”
For our purposes here, I’ll go with a definition used by philosopher Angie Pepper in her forthcoming paper about animal privacy: “The right to privacy … protects the interest that we have in being able to control how we present ourselves to others.” In other words, privacy means being able to choose what information to provide to other individuals. Pepper and others argue that this ability is foundational to allowing for a variety of types of relationships. The information you provide to your parents is likely different than what you provide to your partner, siblings, boss, or best friend; and this creative control “is vital for the kinds of social interaction that are important for human well-being,” Pepper writes.
With that in mind, we can ask: Do nonhuman animals have the same need to form different types of relationships? The answer to that seems to be an obvious yes. Animals mate and fight and form friendships with one another. They treat family members differently than they treat strangers. Do they choose which information to provide to other individuals? Again, yes. If a scrub jay knows it’s being watched while it hides food, it will come back later to move it. Some birds have what researchers call a “quiet song,” which is their version of whispering, used to communicate something they don’t want others to hear.
When you’re watching someone (human or otherwise) who does not know they’re being watched, you’re forcing that being into a more intimate relationship than they might want to be in. If you see the human Larry fold his underwear, you may learn a lot more about him than he would let you find out otherwise. The same is true, Pepper argues, for Larry the bear. “When the zoo-goers surveil the gorillas through peepholes, they force the gorillas into a relationship of intimacy—a relationship that they might not have chosen if they had known that they were being watched and had they been given genuine opportunities for retreat and withdrawal.”
This also means that some animals might be more accepting of our intrusions than others, based on the kinds of relationships we have with them. Jenny O’Dell writes in her book How to Do Nothing about how she slowly earned the trust of some local crows who let her into a small sliver of their lives. Your pet likely has a pretty intimate connection with you and may not mind doing any number of gross things in your presence. (The same goes for your baby.) But a wild gorilla might not choose to have that same closeness, and Pepper says we should respect that.
This is why it probably feels unethical to surveil Larry the human, even if he never, ever finds out that you’re watching him. It’s also why many people consider it off-limits to film a person in a coma or a person with a developmental disability that hampers their ability to understand what it means to be filmed. “The act of looking is itself an enactment of power, irrespective of whether who/what is being looked at is bothered about being viewed,” says Brett Mills, a professor of media studies at the University of East Anglia who often writes about nature documentaries. “So the question is not ‘Does the thing being looked at care?’ The question is, ‘What power do I enact when I insist on the right to look?’”
The entitlement we feel toward animals changes not just how we view them but how we interact with them. The idea that we deserve access to these creatures’ every waking minute creates a culture in which people get dangerously close to bison and lions, pass around a baby dolphin until it dies, and harass bears. When people see animals as something we should have access to, 24/7, we put both ourselves and them at risk.
An animal’s right to privacy, like a human’s, does not extend to all situations at all times. There are trade-offs to consider and harms to weigh. Researchers can learn a lot from filming animals—and doing so covertly can help minimize the impact on the environment and on animal behavior. “I do think there are occasions where watching animals can be justified because we might think that, all things considered, it's in their best interest,” says Pepper. Think of the human-centered conversations currently happening around cameras in schools and nursing homes, where people are debating just how much surveillance is helpful, and how much is too much.
But Pepper and Mills hope that researchers will start to consider these broader ethical questions regarding harm to animals, in addition to practical matters of environmental degradation and behavioral disruption. What that looks like in practice is hard to say. “I think we ought to just stop spying on animals in their homes” for nature documentaries, Pepper says. She admits that this argument tends to provoke a very angry response, in part due to the widespread belief that watching nature programs can inspire better environmental stewardship. “People really want to see animals, really want to get in their space and be in their homes. They can't accept that some things might just be off limits.”
Mills adds that watching animals might not be the only source of harm. “For many species, sight is not the primary sense. To worry about privacy only in terms of looking is to understand human-animal relations in an anthropocentric manner that normalizes sight,” he says. “So how could privacy work in terms of, say, smell?” Maybe an animal is fine with us staring at them all day, but they’d prefer we kept our noses closed.
There are also questions about how broadly these kinds of considerations should apply. Do bees deserve privacy? What about tardigrades? At what point do we decide that an animal is social, self-aware, or smart enough to deserve our deference? No one knows. But I think it’s still worth considering all this more carefully than we have before—which is to say, I think we should start considering it at all.