Our Surveillance Society
by André Dao
This article was originally published in the New Philosopher. Get a copy here.
In the perfect prison, I am bathed in light. I don’t languish in the dark – I am put to work. There are no wardens, at least, none that I can see. But I am watched all the time. I know that I’m being watched, and in the beginning, I live within myself, where their eyes can’t follow. Despite these noble intentions, I start to slip up; I make a phone call to the outside, I start writing in a diary. Eventually, I don’t care – I can’t care – about the watchers. Eventually, it’s hardly like being in prison at all.
In Discipline and Punish, the French philosopher Michel Foucault traces the genealogy of the prison, from the brutality of the ancient dungeon to the modern prison which so resembles a factory, a school, a barracks, a hospital. The turning point, for Foucault, is the idea of the panopticon, Jeremy Bentham’s ideal institutional building first proposed in the late 18th century. Bentham’s key innovation was to make visibility itself the trap – for the panopticon is to be built in such a way that from a central vantage point, a single warden could be watching any prisoner in his or her cell, without the prisoners ever being able to see the warden. The genius of this design, as Foucault points out, is that the mere illusion of total surveillance can produce the same effects as the real thing.
First, surveillance makes it possible to draw up differences – to mark each prisoner as an individual. In the dungeons of medieval Europe, prisoners were indistinguishable in their dark, overcrowded dungeons. In the panopticon, every detail of each prisoner’s life is meticulously recorded, their progress tracked by innumerable metrics. All the while, the prison authorities are able to exert more control whilst expending less and less resources. They can do away with spectacles of extreme torture (which are politically ever more costly) and even most of the watchers – for as long as the prisoner believes they are being watched, then they become the agent of their own surveillance. From here, the prisoner slowly becomes a more useful individual, as they modify their behaviour on the assumption of an omniscient gaze.
Surveillance is therefore a mechanism of efficiency – it allows authority to track and modify the behaviour of its subjects, without seeming to exert undue power at all. It projects order onto chaos and so could never have been kept confined to the criminal justice system. For Foucault, surveillance becomes a principle – perhaps the principle – behind the organisation of modern society.
The idea of a surveillance society isn’t new – George Orwell published Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1949 – but we may have reached a watershed in its reification. In May this year, a former FBI counterterrorism agent admitted that all digital communications – from phone calls to emails – are automatically recorded and stored and accessible to the government after the fact. When I spoke to Professor Simon Chesterman, an Australian academic and Dean of the Law School at the National University of Singapore, he felt that if “anyone with a phone can take a picture of you on the street”, then “fights over the very existence of a file are losing fights”. In part, this is about a generation gap – Chesterman argued that it was activists in the 1960s who resisted all surveillance in the name of privacy, whereas “people these days are pretty fatalistic about privacy issues”.
For Chesterman, this is natural given that privacy is simply “incoherent as a concept”. In the late nineteenth century, the idea of privacy as a legal right emerged in the US – a kind of right to be let alone. As ever, the Americans took the libertarian approach – nosey governments should keep out of our private lives – whereas the Europeans adopted a concept of privacy based on dignity, stressing the “importance of preserving a sphere of life that is outside the public gaze”. Yet neither approach can adequately deal with modern conundrums: simply put, we just don’t act as if we want a right to be let alone, or a private sphere of life. It’s what Chesterman describes as the “theory/practice disjunction”, in which people “get very exercised in theory when they hear that their privacy is being compromised, but then they’ll go back to doing things that suggest that they really don’t care.” Protestors who challenge police footage of their actions willingly post their own footage to social media; we all use technologies that we know are under surveillance (email and credit cards to just name a couple).
In a New York Times op-ed, Chesterman argued that those old conceptions of privacy were being replaced with a new “social contract”, in which individuals “give the state (and, frequently, other actors) power over information in exchange for security and the conveniences of living in the modern world.” So rather than privacy, we have data protection, which Chesterman tells me is “far more susceptible to definition and control”. It’s also a concept much more based on economics than privacy – as in Foucault’s take on the purpose of surveillance in the panopticon, present day information gathering is not merely for the purpose of preventing crime, but also the creation of a more ordered, efficient world. That generational shift, from an activist culture of anti-surveillance to this acceptance of surveillance measured by economic outcomes, is symptomatic of the internalised institutional gaze which results from the omnipresence of watchers and data gatherers; we are living and thinking in the panopticon.
A quick look at data protection laws around the world reveals a common pattern. They do not target the collection of data – as Chesterman pointed out to me, that is a losing battle – only inefficiencies of the system, like fraud and stolen data. But it is the very collection of data – the very fact of constant, total surveillance – that subtly changes our way of thinking. One readily imaginable scenario: Hospitals – under ever-increasing financial strain – begin to sell this information about their patients to interested private actors, like insurance companies. This is the sort of thing that truly worries Chesterman, “that there’ll be categories of people who will not get insurance because their genetic material has been collected or they’ve been profiled and they’re predisposed to heart conditions, or dementia, and insurance companies will exclude them.” The insurance scenario conforms perfectly to the logic of this new “social contract” – the rules of surveillance which we happily accept every time we walk down a CCTV lined street, or send an email; efficiency always prevails over privacy.
 Simon Chesterman, “After Privacy: The Rise of Facebook, The Fall of Wikileaks, and Singapore’s Personal Data Protection Act 2012”, Singapore Journal of Legal Studies , 391–415, 392.
 Simon Chesterman, “A Little Less Privacy, A Bit More Security”, The New York Times, 12 November 2012.