NSA, Panopticon and paradox of surveillance exposed

In No Place to Hide Glenn Greenwald presents a harsh critique of mass-surveillance conducted by the NSA as revealed in the massive stash of documents from Edward Snowden. In addition to the obligatory George Orwell 1984 references, the author also evokes the 18th century British philosopher Jeremy Bantham’s Panopticon, a hypothetical prison design optimized for constant observation for inmates. Its unfortunate denizens occupy the outer rings of a circular structure, with an inner one-way transparent tower reserved for the wardens. These wardens can look out and observe the inmates at any time, but the inmates can not see what is going on inside that tower. They can not even be certain at any given time if there is any one on the other side watching. Yet the suspicion is always there– and that is the point. The mere possibility of being under observation will silently coerce the otherwise unruly denizens into behaving themselves, goes the argument, far more effectively than any random meting out of punishment or violence.

This tried-and-true dystopian construct is recycled yet again by Greenwald to argue that ubiquitous mass-surveillance will have the effect of chilling speech, smothering dissent and turning Americans into obedient conformists, afraid to challenge their government:

… Bentham’s solution was to create “the apparent omnipresence of the inspector” in the minds of the inhabitants. ‘The persons to be inspected should always feel themselves as if under inspection, at least as standing a great chance of being so.” They would thus act is they were always being watched, even if they weren’t. The result would be compliance, obedience and conformity with expectations.

A later paragraph quotes Foucoult:

Those who believe they are watched will instinctively choose to do that which is wanted of them without even realizing that they are being controlled– the Panopticon induces “in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.” With the control internalized, the overt evidence of repression disappears because it is no longer necessary: …

There is one problem with the parallel: until Edward Snowden, few people realized that they were living in the Panopticon. There has never been a shortage of tinfoil-hat wielding conspiracy theorists convinced that the FBI is tuning into our brain patterns from outer space. Occasionally we were given glimpses into the extent of data collection: New York Times expose in 2005 on  warrantless surveillance, AT&T whistle-blower coming forward with the existence of NSA monitoring equipment on AT&T premises. But until Guardian, New York Times and Washington Post started publishing from the cache of leaked documents, there was no convincing proof, no reason to suspect that every email, phone conversation and text message would be scanned as part of a massive communications dragnet, that every routine credit-card purchase feeds into an operation designed to ferret out terrorist financing networks. Delusions aside, it is difficult for society to be intimated or cowed into submission by something they do not believe exists. Not only was the extent of surveillance unknown, but intelligence agencies very much preferred to keep it that way, using every opportunity to refute the allegations.

This is a key difference from Bentham’s frequently misused Panopticon: in the Panopticon inmates lived every moment fully aware of the constant possibility– if not actual reality of– being under observation. The architecture not only enabled constant surveillance, but it was fully transparent about that objective. Manifesting the presence of surveillance to its targets is an integral part of the design. There is no question about whether privacy exists in this system, no warm-fuzzy concepts of due process, 4th amendment protections and warrant requirements.

Intelligence operations by contrast thrive on secrecy. Extraordinary measures are taken to keep their existence hidden. A surveillance target aware of being watched, the theory goes, will modify his/her behavior, exercise greater caution or attempt to hide their tracks. In the extreme scenario, they might even refrain from communicating the information or carrying out actions the operation hoped to uncover. If surveillance was perfectly ubiquitous one could argue that state of affairs is just as good as having collected actionable intelligence. If all terrorists gave up on conspiring to plan new attacks out of fear that they are being watched, fewer attacks may result and society is safer. But frequent exaggeration and hyperbole aside, no system of surveillance built is quite that omnipresent. Knowing that communications in one medium are carefully watched motivates the targets to conduct their activities over different channels where greater privacy is assumed to exist. Surveillance exposed is surveillance rendered ineffective. Distrust in US technology companies in the aftermath of PRISM revelations is one example of this effect. Fewer people entrusting their data to Google, MSFT and Yahoo will be counterproductive for a system that relied on those companies providing a wealth of information.

The Internet became a true Panopticon only after Edward Snowden came forward and his message reached a mass audience. Paradoxically then, to the extent that chilling effects on political speech have resulted in the wake of NSA revelations, Greenwald, Poitras and Gellman were key players in creating the Panopticon. In true ignorance-as-bliss fashion, our previous state of misguided expectations around privacy may have been far more conducive to free expression after all. But in this case we can only be grateful to Snowden for resetting those expectations and starting the debate on intelligence reform.


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