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Living in a Panopticon

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

"I have nothing to hide" - that's a sentence I dread in conversations about blurred lines between what's private and what's public. I hear it often in discussions about reality TV, Facebook pictures, and surveillance technologies, including cameras on every street corner and in every bus.
For surveillance, there is a security argument to be made – personal security, national security. For Facebook and reality TV, there’s an entertainment argument to be made – it’s what the audience likes to see, and in any case, the inhabitants of the Big Brother house chose to be there. These arguments are insufficient. The problem about blurring the lines between what’s private and what’s public is a matter of principle, not a matter of personal convenience.

The principle is the right to life outside a Panopticon. The Panopticon is a prison design described by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham. The design allows watchmen to observe all inmates at all times without the inmates knowing whether they are being observed or not. French philosopher Michel Foucault argued that the technology enabling such a Panopticon allows a small number of people to control a large number of other people: "Just as the ability to read and write and freely communicate gives power to citizens that protects them from the powers of the state, the ability to surveil, to invade the citizens’ privacy, gives the state the power to confuse, coerce and control citizens."

Both the cultural shift toward bringing the private into the public through social media and reality shows as well as advancing surveillance technology used for security purposes create a Panopticon in which we, the people, never know when we are being observed or not. This is not a first world problem. Advanced surveillance technology is an immediate threat for citizens of authoritarian states. There is only a small step between surveillance and policing people's overheard opinions. Surveillance limits the space for political opposition, which, in authoritarian states, is a crucial means for checks and balance. Citizens living in a Panopticon cannot grow, they are living in a prison.

I have nothing to hide either. But I strongly object to living in a Panopticon. A Panopticon is a prison, a punishment. It is, first and foremost, a technology of oppression. It's not a way of living.

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Picture credit: Flickr user nicolasnova


Submitted by Charlie on

I couldn't agree more. As a technologist, I've seen this coming for a long time. In the rush to be "connected" I fear that it won't be too long before we have to pay to be "disconnected".

Hi Anne,

In this day and age, one can't expect privacy while using the Internet. There is no longer such thing as online privacy. All our online activities are monitored - all the time. But is that bad thing?

I, for one, think that the Internet should be regulated. The government should issue an online ID for every individual to use if s/he wishes to surf the Internet. All the activities performed by that individual will be recorded to his online ID. This ensures that people become more responsible when using the Internet (especially when expressing their opinions and doing questionable activities). I think everyone agrees with me that over 90% of the opinions expressed on the Internet are written by people who just can't say them in public.

I don't want to sound like those people who are against freedom - it's actually the total opposite. We all know that world governments are monitoring our activities anyway, so let's jut regulate this thing and get over with it.

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