People fear the future of technological surveillance

November 6, 2012 - 

People quite rightly fear new forms of state surveillance that might possibly emerge in everyday life. They fear the future use by police of holographic data screens, citywide surveillance cameras, and multiple dimensional maps and database feeds that monitor the movements of law-abiding citizens.

They fear the future as depicted by a popular online short film called “Plurality” that has taken YouTube by storm:

People fear the use of biometric data linked to government intelligence profiles because they do not like the expanded powers that Western countries have promulgated since the September 11 terrorist attacks, which expand policing, detention, and profiling powers with little independent legal oversight.

While law-abiding citizens understand and mostly endorse enhanced security measures, they expect such measures to be used within the traditional context of the “rule of law”, which includes habeas corpus. They also expect that their confidential data will not be used in a homogenous fashion. Data collected from merchants should not be shared and used by government agencies to construct risk profiles and assessments without warrants.

However, people are quite fearful that in a world of aggregated data, which includes varied sources such as credit card purchases, Web browser histories and healthcare records, personal information will be assembled to form gigantic data footprints about individuals to aid in state surveillance.

Of course, modern sociologists and philosophers long have predicted this type of use of surveillance. French philosopher Michel Foucault developed a theory of surveillance, which focused on aspects of power, the accumulation of information, and the direct supervision of subordinates.

He considered communication technologies as components of a “panoptic machine” that ensured that individuals were seen, but were not aware that they were seen or were objects of information rather than a subject of communication. The panoptic machine, according to Foucault is “at once surveillance and observation, security and knowledge, individualization and totalization, isolation and transparency.” Accordingly, it is an integrated system of surveillance, intelligence, and control.

For Foucault, the Panopticon, a circular prison constructed so that every inmate is always physically visible to guards in a central tower, as described by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, was paradigmatic.

People who believe they are being watched tend to do what they think they are supposed to do, even when they are not. People whose physical actions and emotional responses have been shaped by discipline, such as soldiers, workers, prisoners, tend to adopt the mindset of the disciplinary institution.

Communication scholar Oscar Gandy would identify the underlying concept of “panopticism” as a technology of power realized through the practice of disciplinary classification and surveillance that he referred to as the “panoptic sort.” The panoptic sort is a system of power that is guided by a generalized concern with rationalization of social, economic and political systems.

It is considered a difference machine that sorts individuals into categories and classes on the basis of routine measurements. Gandy asserted that it is a discriminatory technology that allocates options and opportunities on the basis of those measures and the administrative models that they inform. He also asserted that it is a system of power that has been institutionalized by corporations and governments in the form of ubiquitous information systems.

Sophisticated, ubiquitous technologies and techniques such as computerized record keeping contain the inherit potential to create immensely wide-ranging and insidious panoptic techniques, thereby increasing the ability of institutions to control people without directing them, using the subtle pressures of internalized discipline. Foucault’s conception of the panoptic machine therefore acknowledged the control potential of computers and electronic networks, in which both the distribution of intelligence and the integration of surveillance mechanisms could be concurrently coordinated and controlled.

The only way to guard against these insidious forms of control, as described by these academics is to use the political process to ensure that laws are not promulgated that permit the creation of centralized databases, which can enable the all-encompassing surveillance grids.

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About Rawlson King

Rawlson O’Neil King is a contributing editor at and is an experienced communications professional, management consultant, trade journalist and author who recently published a book about control and electronic networks and who has written numerous articles in trade publications and academic journals about smart home and building technologies. Follow him @rawlsonking2.