The American panopticon

The term “panopticon,” coined from the prefix “pan” (meaning all) and the word “optic” (pertaining to the eye), refers to an observational tower in the center of a circular compound that is supposed to see everything around it. This architectural concept is associated with the 18th-century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who thought of it as an efficient way of keeping an eye on prisoners and making them compliant with the least number of guards.

The concept is based on the diffused power of surveillance, a power that ironically achieves its full effect when the observed is aware that he is being observed. While he knows he is being watched, he does not know exactly when he is being watched. So, he assumes that the all-seeing eye watches him all the time. This thought of being continually monitored changes his behavior. In time, he becomes his own jailer.

Bentham’s prison design did not gain ready acceptance in the England of his time, but the concept behind it became a powerful element in the planning not only of modern prisons but also of industrial factories and institutions that sought to enforce discipline through surveillance. Indeed, as the French writer Michel Foucault argues in his book “Discipline and Punish,” the panopticon has become the paradigm of power in the modern age, far exceeding Bentham’s expectations. With much of human behavior and interaction being digitally communicated through the Internet, the panopticon now takes the form of data-collecting programs that can sift through incredibly large amounts of communication.

Such programs have many potential applications—both socially beneficial and criminal.  All involve, in one way or another, intrusion into private space. But while some are illegal, like hacking e-mail accounts, many are not.  Visiting the Facebook account or personal blog of a person, looking at the messages and pictures posted by people you don’t know, is not a criminal offense. Indeed, it is encouraged by the owners of these accounts, thus suggesting a new norm of openness that compels a redrawing of the notion of privacy.

In this complex age of information, the capacity to gain access to unlimited amounts of data and instantly separate meaningful information from garbage spells great power. Rival corporations steal inventions and marketing strategies from another in this manner. Governments, as US President Barack Obama said in reference to the revelations of the former US spy agency contractor Edward Snowden, gather all kinds of information as a requirement of sound policymaking. US State Secretary John Kerry echoed this attempt to downplay the implications of the Snowden revelations in his recent chat with journalists in Brunei. He said: “I will say that every country in the world that is engaged in international affairs and national security undertakes lots of activities to protect its national security, and all kinds of information contribute to that.”

There is no question that information is gold. But it is one thing to mine it in accordance with law, and another to steal it. What Snowden exposed to the world is a pattern of official spying conducted by the US National Security Agency that entails reading e-mails and listening to international calls to and from the United States. Is such spying legal? If it is expected, is it acceptable?

One might argue that governments that assign themselves responsibilities in the world stage, like America, are expected to engage in spying activities both as a protective measure and in pursuit of their country’s national and global interests. China and Russia presumably do it, too, which may be why these two countries are not exploiting the Snowden exposés to embarrass the United States.

But to spy on one’s allies seems a different matter. The American panopticon, perfected in the era of the Cold War, appears to be equally focused on friendly nations. In a second batch of documents leaked to Britain’s The Guardian, and shared by the latter with Germany’s Der Spiegel, Snowden offers solid evidence of American spying on the European Union diplomatic offices and other foreign embassies in the United States.  It seems that only a few countries are considered trustworthy enough to be exempted from surveillance—Britain, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. On the other hand, Germany, France, and Italy—also American allies—are not spared.

Der Spiegel reports: “The documents confirm what had already been suspected for some time in government circles in Berlin—that the US intelligence service, with approval from the White House, is spying on the Germans—possibly right up to the level of the chancellor.” What is interesting is that this global surveillance scheme seems to enjoy the cooperation of the intelligence agencies of the countries involved—even if their respective national laws prohibit spying on their own citizens. The leaked documents show that these agencies exchanged information at the global level, thus going around the prohibition. What we confront here, therefore, is a global surveillance machine that spies on the world with no clear accountability to anyone.

The 30-year-old Snowden, now a fugitive being hunted down for violating the secret workings of this gigantic panopticon, sends out a simple message: “The public needs to decide whether these policies are right or wrong.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel says: “The monitoring of friends—this is unacceptable, it can’t be tolerated. We’re no longer in the Cold War.” I say, with or without the Cold War, a power such as this cannot be tolerated: The mere thought that it is there turns us all into prisoners.