Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

Surveillance and Control

-- By EileenHutchinson - 05 May 2013

“He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.” - Michel Foucault

I Spy: Mapping Palestinians

I recently listened to an episode of “This American Life” that described an Israeli Defense Force (IDF) military practice called “mapping.” Soldiers tasked with mapping an area go door-to-door in Palestinian communities, diagramming the layouts of individual homes – including where windows and balconies are and what doors lead to the street – and obtaining personal information on and photographs of the residents in a given area. A particularly disturbing mapping practice is that Israeli soldiers in full gear, guns drawn, enter Palestinian homes in the middle of the night, waking up families to individually photograph all children living in the homes.

What surprised me most about the report was that a number of Israeli soldiers said that they regularly disposed of all information collected during mapping exercises, only to remap the same neighborhoods. What the hell was the point of all this, I wondered. Former IDF soldier Yehuda Shaul answered my question: “Very quick you understand that mapping is just another form of making your presence felt, right?...The idea is very simple. Every Palestinian feels that the IDF is always right here, you know?...We’re breathing behind you. We’re always here. We’re always watching. You never know where we’re going to be, when we’re going to show up, how it’s going to look like, what we’re going to do, when it’s going to start, when it’s going to end, right? So what do you do to make them feel this way? You make your presence felt.”

The Panopticon

In the 18th century, Jeremy Bentham created the Panopticon, a prison design in which every soldier’s cell is visible from an inspection house at the center of the prison. The layout allows guards to watch prisoners at all times; the prisoners, however, cannot see one another and – through a complicated system of lights and blinds – cannot see the guards. Because the prisoners cannot know whether they are being watched at any given moment, it is expected that the prisoners will behave at all times as if they were being surveilled. The structure leads to the internalization of the inspection house and the guards themselves by the prisoners. Bentham described the Panopticon as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.” In his 1975 book Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault adopted the Panopticon as a metaphor to explore the evolution of discipline as a means of social control in society. In the old world, punishment was a public spectacle, a demonstration of the power of the sovereign. Punishment was also corporeal, taking the form of gruesome torture and brutal executions. In the panoptical era, punishment is dispensed in private and its target is the mind, rather than the body. According to Foucault, the Panopticon is “at once surveillance and observation, security and knowledge, individualization and totalization, isolation and transparency.” A prisoner who is isolated and observed is rendered extremely vulnerable, and the Panopticon can operate on those prisoners “as a machine to carry out experiments, to alter behavior, to train or to correct individuals.”

Much to Bentham’s consternation, a true Panopticon prison was never built. This was irrelevant to Foucault, who argued that, “Panoptic mechanisms, such as isolation, classification and observation have become de-institutionalized and circulate freely in modern society.” Such mechanisms are regularly used in institutions – schools, armies, churches, factories – to transform individuals into what Foucault called “docile bodies,” persons suited to the economics, politics and warfare of modern industrial age countries. The use of panoptic techniques in modern society is undeniable, as evidence by the IDF night raids which exhibit the two key features of the Panopticon – (1) an asymmetric gaze, and (2) uncertainty created by the asymmetric gaze, which produces surrender and ultimately subordination in those individuals subjected to observation. Taking individual photographs of and collecting information from each person individualizes and isolates each Palestinian. The unexpected and unexplained night visits deliver the intended message as articulated by Shaul: “We’re always here. We’re always watching.”

The Velvet Glove and the Iron Fist: Applying the Foucauldian Model of Surveillance to Technology

There can be no doubt as to the astounding proliferation of surveillance – both in kind and amount – in contemporary society. As of 2006, Great Britain had over four million CCTV cameras, one for every 14 people, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg referred to the recent Boston bombing as “a terrible reminder of why we’ve made these investments – including camera technology [for video surveillance].” Online tracking companies have built an industry out of monitoring what individual Internet users search for and read online, and the widespread use of social networking sites often gives trackers the ability to personally identify users. An application of the Panopticon model to technological innovation yields one immediate inconsistency. In Bentham’s blueprint, the prisoners are very much aware of their status as prisoners; prisoners under uncertain surveillance submit to the rules of the prison because of their tangible fear of further punishment.

Although many of office drone complains of being “chained to his blackberry,” today’s consumer doesn’t feel imprisoned by technology. On the contrary, people love technology. So many of our interactions with technology are voluntary, even pleasurable, because we view technology as a toy, a tool, a service provider, a connector and a protector. A smartphone that tracks and stores our locations at all times is a great way to stay in touch with friends and family. CCTV cameras that turn public streets into stages are the solution to terror attacks. David Lyon describes this phenomenon thus: “New technologies… eventually permit surveillance tending toward totalitarianism with democratic processes still neatly in place.”

Although our transformation into a surveillance state is already taking place, the modern “prisoner” has retained two critical tools. First, he need not remain isolated. Despite ample warning, there is simply not enough awareness of the grave danger imposed on society of constant surveillance. Raising such awareness in a period marked by terror attacks and the fear of terror attacks will not be an easy task. A recent New York Times/CBS Poll found that 78% of Americans believe that surveillance cameras are a good idea. In a society with democratic processes still neatly in place, turning the tide of popular opinion can have real consequences. Second, the “prisoner” can build shields to keep out the prying eye of the inspection house. Existing tools, including those we used in our class project and the FreedomBox? , are devices that empower the individual to take control and to refuse the oppressive influence of the asymmetric gaze.

So Bentham is balanced by Blake. We need to be told that our manacles are mind-forged, in order to appreciate that Bentham's forge is just a specialized and atypical design. For most, the social control arranged by manacling our minds works better when the manacles are disguised as the jewelry we chose for ourselves.

What is the real relevance of the extended illustrating, for you? Do you want the reader to think mainly about the Palestinians, about the Panopticon, or about something you have to say? If the latter, your revision should be directed at rebalancing the essay, so it diverts the reader's attention less from your ideas to your illustrations.

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r3 - 14 Jan 2015 - 22:44:39 - IanSullivan
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