The Panopticon

Governments have used technology to build a panopticon, single location to spy on citizens without their knowledge. Here are some of the issues we should debate.

Federal, state, and local spying on innocent people is a great example of how people who don’t know much about technology should learn so they can participate in the debate. History shows it is dangerous to assume any government or agency can control itself.

For example, despite all the spying by the US National Security Agency (NSA), reportedly collecting 1.7 billion pieces of data a day, there is not one case where the spying turned up a criminal plot. However, there are many proven cases where people operating these programs spy on people they know personally and trade compromising pictures and data amongst themselves. Spying on loved ones even has a catchy name: LOVEINT. It’s human nature.

The failure of technology to protect us by identifying crimes before they happen does not mean the technology is useless. These failures also do not mean the technology should not be deployed. And I say that as a Luddite, someone deeply skeptical about the need and effectiveness of technology in our daily lives.

Imagine a camera on a pole that captures images of people as they walk by. Now imagine someone is assaulted and murdered in plain view of the camera, perhaps early in the morning when there are no cars and no witnesses nearby. Would violating the privacy of everyone who walks past day and night be worth the only opportunity to identify the person who committed the crime?

Most people would say yes, the camera evidence would be worth the small violation of the privacy of anyone who walks past our camera on a pole.

Unlike the debate about the effectiveness of torture, where evidence the opposite techniques work far more effectively with less collateral damage, video of a serious crime would be better than no video.

Recently I sat with my daughter in a monthly town council meeting for a wealthy nearby town. She had to attend a government meeting to graduate high school. Two police officers dropped by to explain a surveillance system they were about to deploy in the town. Anyone who drove through this town would have their license plate recorded. People who lived in the town could submit their license plate numbers and not have their car traffic recorded. The recording devices would be hidden in bushes at key choke points in the small bedroom community.

According to the county police officers, the license plate surveillance system was the single biggest factor in reducing home break-ins for neighboring towns using the program. The town council and neighbors in the meeting acted impressed and asked few questions.

Most interesting to me were the questions not asked by the town council. The most obvious questions are:

  • Where is the license plate data stored?
  • What software is used to access the data?
  • What networks are connected to the location where data is stored?
  • Who uses the software and has access to the network? How are they vetted for security?
  • Is license plate data encrypted?
  • When is the license plate data retrieved, and under what circumstances?
  • How long is license plate data stored?

No one in this community town hall thought to ask these questions. I only know them because of my years working with technology. Yet the answers to these questions determine whether or not using automatic license plate readers is worth the violation of individual privacy.

For example, my daughter and I have for years driven through this town and others on an evening, as a way to relax and admire the nice homes and the views of the south shore of Long Island. It’s never occurred to me to rob houses we pass by. I’d like to believe the capture of our license plate data will be encrypted (so accidental access won’t reveal our data) and only be used with a court order as part of investigating cars passing through a specific area during at the time a crime was committed.

We’ll never know because no one asks these questions. Certainly the police officers never mentioned these details. They’re not thinking this way.

As you can see from reading some or all the articles linked below, the threat of criminal acts (often called terrorism) has been used to create a surveillance state in the US, a true Panopticon, a single source to watch everyone of us without us being able to know if we are being watched. The purpose of a Panopticon is not to keep people safe, despite what any government says, now or in the past. It’s purpose is to enforce conformity because people know they are being watched, even if they do not know when or how.

Surely we want criminals to conform their behavior. But do we want to subject the vast majority of people who are not criminals to spying? And we should be careful how we define criminal behavior.

Perhaps more worrisome are spying programs that combine government collected data with private electronic data and data from informants in a program called Trapwire. For years, I’ve had a Google News alert for this phrase and, while many of the articles are wonderful examples of conspiracy theories, the factual news stories are alarming. Government collection of personal data is very different from data collected by private entities like corporations and individuals. Governments have legal obligations, more transparency, and more accountability than private groups.

It can and should be argued we face threats comparable to what all societies have faced for millennia. We are not special in the level of violence and threats we face.

Indeed, the real threat of nuclear war during the Cold War, the daily stress of knowing hundreds of millions of people could be killed by nuclear weapons, whether planned or by accident, was a far greater threat than the terrorism we face today which tends to be localized and threatens hundreds or thousands of people, not millions.

We have choices about how to balance the need to keep ourselves safe with the need to be free individuals with a right to privacy. Building a police state is simply one way to respond to the threats all societies face, but not necessarily the safest or most humane choice.

As with the license plate readers, and the imaginary case of a single camera recording a heinous crime, the issues involved require serious attention from citizens. That would be you and me. It is especially important to get our kids thinking about these issues since they will inherit what we have built. Technology definitely can help us solve these problems. The question is what technology, when to use the technology, and under what terms.

We should never assume the people we elect or hire to protect us will make the best choices. All of us have to be knowledgeable, active, and part of the debate. Technology is never neutral when used by human beings.

Learn More

How the Feds Are Tracking Us

The Airborne Panopticon: How Plane-Mounted Cameras Watch Entire Cities

Problems with Panopticon: UK CCTVs Don’t Cut Crime Rates

Problems with the Panopticon: UK CCTVs don't cut crime rates

NSA Data Have No Impact on Terrorism: Report

How the NSA's High-Tech Surveillance Helped Europeans Catch Terrorists

Article title is misleading but there is a first rate exploration of the effectiveness of human intelligence versus electronic spying.

Building a Panopticon: The Evolution of the NSA’s XKeyscore

New York City Panopticon Plans Take Shape

Every Day, US Army’s Panopticon Drone Will Collect 80 Years’ Worth of HD Video

NSA Officers Spy on Love Interests

How NSA Spies Abused Their Powers to Snoop on Girlfriends, Lovers, and First Dates




  • Tim Slavin

    Tim is an award-winning writer and technologist who enjoys teaching tech to non-technical people. He has many years experience with web sites and applications in business, technical, and creative roles. He and his wife have two kids, now teenagers, who are mad about video games.

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