Sunday, June 9, 2013

Panopticon - American Style

The myriad (and growing) surveillance leaks of the past few weeks put me in mind of Foucault's thoughts on panoptic surveillance.

  The idea of the Panopticon traces back to the work of Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century.  Bentham coined the term to describe a design for prisons where every inch of every cell was under constant surveillance by prison authorities; yet prisoners would not know when, or if, they were actually being watched.  Bentham held that unverifiable surveillance was an efficient and economic exercise in state power, while providing the state with a viable mechanism for discipline and control.

French philosopher Michel Foucault used the idea as a metaphor for the modern state's mechanism for control and punishment.  Under Benthan's unverifiable surveillance, individuals are never sure whether or not they are being watched, or by whom.  As a result, Foucault argues that individuals are "trained" to resist any impulse of misbehavior or "abnormality" for fear of being caught, uncertain whether such a display is safe or not.  Also, as more and more information is gathered on individuals and their behaviors, Foucault argued, people become "objects of knowledge" to state authorities - whose actions can be tracked, examined, catalogued, examined, compiled, and acted on - if that is in the interest of the state.  Foucault argues that this gives hegemonic authorities great power - to identify, track, and punish those whose behaviors lie outside the state's idea of "normal" - and allowing the state to "humanely rehabilitate" those of their citizens who stray from the path of enlightenment (or at least what the hegemonic authorities think is appropriate).

I had originally put Foucault's social theories among those critical theorists who had interesting ideas and insights, but whose insistence on the prevalence of a powerful hegemonic state authority seemed unrealistic.  Then came the leaks and the leaks about the state's response to leaks.

First there were the revelations of the Department of Justice intercepting and tracking phone calls and emails of journalists who broke and wrote about various "leaks" that weren't seen as beneficial to the current administration.  Then came the Guardian's story about the state's downloading of all call information from one of the US's largest operators - Verizon.  The FISA warrant was notable for its breadth - instead of looking for individual records, or those meeting certain behavior patterns or posing identifiable threats, the NSA sought, and obtained, permission to gather all records for everybody - who called whom, where calls originated and terminated, and length of the call.  Also included were customer records, emails, and Internet activity routed through Verizon's system.  Further, all of this was supposed to occur without any notice being given to the individuals being surveilled.  A perfect example of the concept of panoptic "unverifiable surveillance."  [For those of you on other networks, Verizon's just the one the published the warrant for - it's a safe bet that similar warrants have been granted for most, if not all, telecommunications operators in the US.]

If that level of unverifiable surveillance wasn't bad enough, there was PRISM.  The Prism project actually consists of a number of different efforts with a common goal - to gather, copy, and analyze all electronic communication.  There's a physical basis in the form of a large complex for data storage and analysis, and it's known that other aspects involve collecting the information running through various checkpoints on the Internet, ostensibly from, and with the cooperation of, major Internet players (who have subsequently vociferously denied any cooperation with, or even awareness of, the program).  The Guardian reported that one of these programs, called "Boundless Informant," collected more than 3 billion pieces of information from U.S. computer networks last March (2013), and that the intercepts do include specific information such as IP addresses.  All for a program that is supposed to be limited to foreign communications.
  Whether it is focussed terror-related intelligence or a broad and comprehensive surveillance of all electronic communications - including those of its citizens remains a bit unclear.  But NSA testimony to Congress has shifted - from insisting that it does not collect any type of data on large numbers of American citizens, to that the NSA had not "wittingly" (purposely) collected data on large numbers of Americans, to tightly parsed denials that the NSA could, in fact, "physically" collect very specific bits of information (the kinds of things that you can't tell from online communications).  And in a classified slideshow the Prism folks use to market their activities to other agencies, they clearly suggest that they can deal with most all forms of electronic communications.

Welcome to the world of unverifiable surveillance.  But the Foucault conception of panoptic discipline also requires the ability to take all that surveillance data and use it to identify outliers - those who stray from social normality.  And that brings us to the data analysis side of Prism, and the developing field of data mining.  One of the things that data mining is good at is identifying outliers - individual cases that vary significantly from the vast muddle in the middle that we can consider typical or normal.  In other words, we're becoming very, very good at treating people as "objects of knowledge", and being able to recognize and identify outliers.

Finally, the Obama administration has amply demonstrated its interest in disciplining those who stray from the enlightened path, and not necessarily through humane rehabilitation.

Maybe Foucault's fears are more realistic and immediate than I originally thought.

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