Friday, November 12, 2010

The new panopticon

Our insatiable thirst for tabloid fodder makes privacy a lost cause for the famous. No celebrity is safe from tabloid gossip anymore. The more famous you are, the more you are hounded by the paparazzi until everything about you is made public.

But nothing compares to the advances of technology and how they have made our society a modern-day panopticon where everything and everyone are under constant observation.

The social theorist Jeremy Bentham designed a prison called the panopticon which allows the observation of all the prisoners without them knowing they are being watched. Bentham did not see the panopticon built during his time, but his design was invoked by Michel Foucault (1926-1984) who is often described as the most important philosopher of the second half of the twentieth century.

In his work Discipline and Punish, Foucault used the panopticon as a metaphor for society’s invasive tendency to observe and punish aberrant behaviour.

Today, the Internet as a structure for social control is sometimes referred to as the new panopticon. Many new technologies, in particular new Internet services, are eroding privacy worldwide, with the United States leading efforts to remove legal restrictions that limit electronic surveillance.

Sometime in 1996, the FBI started using a program called Carnivore to randomly monitor email, a form of surveillance similar to telephone surveillance called “trunk-side” wiretapping, which has been illegal in the United States for more than 30 years. While it has been argued that email should be protected by the Constitution against government intruders, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that email messages stored in a computer are not protected by the Electronic Privacy Communications Privacy Act of 1986.

It is this feature of monitoring Internet users that gives the Internet a semblance of the panopticon prison structure.

As a conceptual structure, the panopticon can apply to any physical structure that allows those in a position of authority to monitor the inmates without the inmates knowing. Within the structure of the Internet, there are multiple layers of observation where no one knows who is the observer and who is the observed.

Today’s Internet user’s privacy is being overlooked to allow corporations to provide declared necessary services such as security against terrorists and hackers, control over illegal content (pornography, pirated computer music and film files, and dangerous information on how to build bombs, etc.)

While it is impossible to say or verify that one central organization is implementing panopticon on the Internet with the objective of achieving social control, the panopticon may in the near future emerge as a desirable structure for the perceived need for the protection of national security over Internet user safety. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) warned against the passage of the Patriot Act, for example, during the second Bush administration as a carte blanche authorization for the FBI to access communications of innocent people contrary to the core promise of the Fourth Amendment.

With the onset of the “Cam Era” or webcam technology, surveillance cameras have extended the panoptic technology of power. Surveillance has now become even subtler and more intense, fusing material space and cyberspace. One writer has called this as the contemporary urban panopticon.

As in Foucault’s ideation of the panopticon, all that is needed is just a gaze. There is no need for arms, physical violence or material constraints. People under surveillance can, as in the panopticon, be seen but never know when or by whom. They are under control but without physical intervention.

By erasing online privacy as already practised in some countries, governments are quick to embrace mass surveillance that threatens privacy rights. While the West is quick to criticize the Chinese government for its surveillance programs, London, England, with its “ring of steel,” has the highest number of street-corner cameras in the world, with roughly 16 cameras for every square mile.

The number of surveillance cameras in cities has grown so massively that our cities have become like enormous panopticons.

In London, thousands of surveillance cameras that line the city’s intersections and neighbourhoods have been credited for providing license plate numbers, images of suspects and other important clues in crime investigations.

New York, specifically lower Manhattan, the site of two terror attacks that included the 9/11 attack, is not far away in building its own “ring of steel.” The area includes the New York Stock Exchange, the Mercantile Stock Exchange, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the site where the World Trade Centre once stood and where the Freedom Tower is now being built.

Police officials say that surveillance cameras will be effective in helping combat crime and terrorism, perhaps even deter it. Civil liberties advocates, however, argue that such systems are a threat to privacy rights and just another step for a society to move toward a constant state of surveillance.

The modern-day electronic panopticon can be considered as unlimited warrantless surveillance. Civil libertarians, notably the American Bar Association and American Civil Liberties Union, are up in arms against the pervasive use of presidential power to monitor the activities of innocent civilians through electronic surveillance under the pretext of protecting national security interests.

It appears that the events of 9/11 may have pre-empted all objections to state monitoring of suspected or potential terrorists. However, there is a need to balance protection of national security with the right to privacy. While the President of the United States or any government leader must have the ability to use all the appropriate tools in his command to defeat the enemies of democracy, there is always a need for a careful balancing of interests. Otherwise, constitutional freedoms would become a victim of the fight against terrorism.

The electronic panopticon can be a tool to install totalitarianism, especially in an environment where technology has taken over every aspect of civil society. Through pervasive electronic surveillance of society and virtually every activity of its citizenry, the personal has become political, where the totalitarian goal is not just legal control over actions, but of our thoughts as well.

Those of us who oppose totalitarianism to flourish under the auspices of electronic technology must expose the agenda behind mass surveillance, censorship and thought crimes. Or we will run the risk of turning into a future reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984. The fact is, there are no longer any technical barriers to the Big Brother regime portrayed by Orwell as the surveillance monster grows in power. But it is upon us to continue building stronger restraints to protect our privacy.

We cannot allow September 11 to be continued to be used as a convenient pretext to loosen constraints that law enforcement has been chafing under for years.

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