Inspirations: Click ‘Like’ to Enter the Digital Panopticon

  • All of our internet activity is monitored by state surveillance agencies.
  • The monitoring violates our privacy and compromises the security of our personal information.
  • We expect the state to protect us from criminals and terrorists.
  • Can we realistically expect both privacy and protection?

My life as a spy

(C Halvorsen [CC / Flickr])

Jeremy Bentham wasn’t looking for a philosophical revelation. He was visiting his brother, Samuel, a naval engineer and a far more prosaic man than Jeremy, a lawyer, polemicist and a nascent philosopher. When Jeremy visited in 1787, Samuel was employed by Prince Potemkin in Krichev, then in Russia and now Belarus.

Samuel’s workshop inspired Jeremy with an idea that has outlived both of them. The circular design allowed a manager placed in the centre to oversee workmen around the edges. The manager could see and communicate with everyone in a large workforce from where he was.

Jeremy Bentham returned to London and presented the idea as a model for a prison layout. Bentham reasoned that a prison governor in the centre of his ‘panopticon’ could keep an eye on all prisoners at all times. More important than whether a prisoner was actually being watched was that he knew someone might be watching at any given time. Bentham believed the sense of being watched would inspire criminals to behave better. The prison was to be open to the public, who would not only observe the prisoners but also ensure the governor was performing his duties.


Jeremy Bentham’s plan for the Panopticon Prison (DieBuche [Wikimedia Commons])

In spite of Bentham’s strenuous efforts, the panopticon was never built and Bentham turned his attention to other projects, including the formation of the River Thames Police and developing his philosophy of utilitarianism. However, the idea that potential miscreants will behave themselves if they think they’re being watched endures in every CCTV camera overlooking a street.

We are being watched right now

A panel on the BBC’s Start the Week podcast used Bentham’s panopticon as a lens to view the issue of surveillance in the modern world, and I’d recommend listening to the voices of far better informed commentators than I can claim to be.

If you’re reading this, you’re already in the latest iteration of the panopticon, otherwise known as the internet. Your click on this site has been recorded by the US National Security Agency (NSA) and its British counterpart, General Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). Unless one of their algorithms decides it’s part of a pattern of dubious behaviour, it will presumably remain buried in the mass of data they collect every minute of every day and you will hear no more about it. I say ‘presumably’ because we don’t know what happens to it. Unlike Bentham’s panopticon, the modern version is not open to the public because NSA and GCHQ do not believe that the corrective value of scrutiny applies to them.

Secretive as NSA is, the revelations of dissident analyst Edward Snowden have placed far more information about it in the public domain than is available for any other national surveillance agency. Snowden is currently hiding somewhere in Russia, but he was able to speak to a TED conference last year using a telepresence robot:


NSA responds

Most of Snowden’s revelations revolve around NSA’s collection of metadata from phone and internet communications. They don’t listen to our calls, but they record who we call, when and for how long. They don’t read our emails, but they record who we send them to and how often.

There is an ongoing debate about how invasive metadata actually is. The advertisements that appear down the side of my Facebook page tell me Facebook is reading my content and using it to target products at me, which is more information than Snowden tells us NSA are gathering. It’s also clear that Facebook’s algorithms don’t know me as well as they’d like to. Today it’s trying to sell me home insurance, apparently oblivious to my lack of permanent abode.

If NSA doesn’t collect content data, it’s probably less out of concern for our privacy than because of the difficulties of analysing it. In his response to Snowden’s TED talk, NSA deputy director Richard Ledgett states frankly that ‘metadata is the information that lets you find connections that people are trying to hide’:


Snowden himself reveals an interesting piece of metadata in his talk when he says the NSA’s ‘Boundless Informant’ program ‘tells us … more communications are being intercepted in America about Americans than there are in Russia about Russians’. Unfortunately he was not asked how he got the information to make the comparison. It’s not likely that the Russian signals intelligence agency, Spetssviaz, shares its metadata with him.

NSA internet monitoring is likely to glean more than any other national surveillance program because so many of the major internet-based companies are based in the USA. People from all over the world use Google, Yahoo, Skype, Facebook and many others, which means that wherever we are geographically, our metadata is sitting on a n NSA server right now.

What price our privacy?

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web, called for a Magna Carta for the internet, which included a call for privacy:


Laudable as the spirit of privacy is, it begs the question of whether privacy is compatible with his other goal of universal access. Can any information available on a system defined by universal access be considered confidential? When I worked in medical research, we kept any information that could be traced back to a patient or volunteer
offline we couldn’t guarantee confidentiality once they were physically connected to the rest of the internet. Banks spend a fortune on security but I wouldn’t trust my money to a bank that doesn’t guarantee to refund any that gets stolen by hackers.


(joelle L [CC / Flickr])

So should we question the assumption that online privacy is a reasonable expectation in the first place? In the Start the Week panel, Cory Doctorow says we should. He describes Facebook as ‘a Skinner box designed to teach you to undervalue your privacy’, referencing a system designed by ethologist BF Skinner to condition the behaviour of rats. The reference to the Skinner box is insightful, suggesting that my reference to Facebook’s data collection is part of the conditioning to make me less concerned about what NSA or GCHQ might be doing.

In defence of the watchers

While Doctorow and many others worry over privacy, others argue the security services are not doing enough.

In February, three schoolgirls from East London, aged 15 and 16, slipped away from their families to join ISIS as ‘jihadi brides’ in Syria. It has since emerged that all three had been in Facebook contact with Aqsa Mahmood, a Glasgow woman who was already with ISIS and was encouraging others to follow her through social media.


GCHQ, Cheltenham, UK (UK Ministry of Defence [CC / Flickr])

The Mahmood family was understandably distressed to lose their daughter to ISIS, and is even more distressed to find she is grooming underage girls to follow her. Aamer Anwar, the Mahmood family lawyer, told the BBC that ‘we are aware from contacts with Special Branch … that [Aqsa’s] social media contact is … regularly monitored’. He went further saying ‘you would expect … a mother and father would want to know if their young daughter has been in touch with a member of ISIS, the police would contact them and say ‘talk to your daughter”.

Anwar was referring to monitoring of Aqsa Mahmood’s publically available Facebook account rather than the more covert systems revealed by Snowden. However, his complaint is effectively that the police should have done a better job of acting on the information they gathered on what teenage girls were doing in the privacy of their bedrooms.

Most of us look to the police and security services to protect teenage girls from being groomed into sexual relationships, whether the groomer is recruiting for ISIS or simply a paedophile on the make.

Whatever the failings in the Mahmood case, Ledgett claimed NSA had ‘contributed to stopping’ 54 terrorist attacks, presumably saving many lives. He did not state whether the attacks would have been prevented without NSAs more invasive surveillance programs. He says that preventing attacks is a collaborative effort which makes it difficult to assess the contribution of any one agency or program. To my mind, his prevarication makes me trust the rest of what he said substantially more than if he’d claimed sole credit for NSA.


National Security Agency, Fort Meade, USA (Trevor Paglen [Wikimedia Commons])

Combined with Snowden and Doctorow’s arguments against surveillance, Anwar’s request for more intervention by the security services and Ledgett’s claims of their successes raises the conundrum at the heart of any discussion of surveillance: we want the security services to keep an eye on people who threaten us and leave the rest of us alone, but how can they identify the threats without monitoring all of us?

The human factor

Bentham’s panopticon invited the public to watch the governor who was watching the prisoners, answering the question first posed by Juvenal of quis custodiet ipsos custodianes, loosely translated as ‘who watches the watchers?’ In the digital panopticon you and I are using to communicate, the transparency is strictly one way. As Tom Sutcliffe, chair of the Start the Week panel says, our governments may justify surveillance with the adage ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ but they do not apply it to themselves, let alone to the agencies that conduct the surveillance.

The lack of transparency wouldn’t matter if we were confident that the surveillance is both competent and benign but as Doctorow says, whether we regard Snowden as a hero or a traitor, his case demonstrates that NSA ‘doesn’t know who is working for them’. Ledgett says NSA has around 35,000 employees. Without a breakdown of NSA’s structure, we can’t know how many people have access to personal information. However, the number are large enough to make it very unlikely that none of them are amenable to bribery or blackmail, or to take Ledgett’s assertion that ‘they’re all great citizens’ on trust.


(thierry ehrmann [CC / Flickr])

Intelligence agencies have been bedevilled by double agents for as long as there have been intelligence agencies, and recent high profile cases involving British journalists bribing police officers for stories show that information is only as confidential as whoever has access to it. It would be a particularly dim newspaper editor who hasn’t at least considered sending a journalist to hang around the bars of Fort Meade, where NSA is based, looking for an analyst drowning his sorrows. If a journalist can do it, so can a terrorist, identity fraudster or foreign intelligence agent. Simply having the information collected in one place makes it vulnerable.

The mind behind the eye

Snowden argues that NSA’s ‘Bullrun’ program and its GCHQ equivalent, ‘Edgehill’, take the risks beyond those posed by corrupt or disaffected analysts by building backdoors into otherwise secure systems. Their aim is to allow access by the intelligence services, but Snowden argues that the mere existence of backdoors make them vulnerable to hackers, which is not reassuring when we depend on them to protect our personal information.


(Alan Strakey [CC / Flickr])

While we worry about how surveillance systems may be subverted, poet Paul Muldoon on Start the Week points out that state surveillance is only as benign as the state. Doctorow quotes Cardinal Richelieu, first minister of King Louis XIII of France, who famously said, ‘give me six lines written by the most honest man, and I will find something there to hang him’. NSA now has more than six lines from anyone who has sent six emails or made six phone calls, even if it’s only as metadata. The state has enough to hang any of us if it wants to.

While there is much to criticise about the US and UK governments, I am openly doing so without fear that the door will be kicked down in the small hours of tomorrow morning. Many people do not enjoy such freedom, and depend on the internet to organise dissident activities. Skype has long been a favourite medium of communication among dissident groups although its level of security has been questioned before, but we can now assume it has at least one backdoor imposed by Bullrun.

Doctorow points out that the internet safe spaces used by terrorists are the same safe spaces as those used by dissident groups, and it’s not possible to open up one without opening up the other. Recognising the issue simply gives another reason for foreign intelligence agents to buy tickets to Fort Meade with a beer and bribery budget.

The irreconcilables

All of this brings us back to the conundrum at the heart of state surveillance. We don’t want to be blown up by terrorists. We don’t want our daughters to be groomed in their bedrooms. We would like criminals to be caught.


Auto-icon of Jeremy Bentham in University College London (David Fisher [CC / Flickr])

On the other hand, we don’t trust state agencies that hide from us while telling us we have nothing to fear if we have nothing to hide. We don’t want criminals getting their hands on our personal information because the state tells us it needs to see it. We don’t want our security to come at the cost of torture and imprisonment of dissidents in oppressive regimes.

Perhaps it was contemplating such irreconcilable positions that led Jeremy Bentham to the utilitarian axiom that ‘it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong’, although his position does not resolve the question of who should watch who in order to achieve that end. As for Bentham himself, his skeleton is padded with hay, dressed in his own clothes and placed on public display in University College London. Like the prisoners of his panopticon, he is permanently available for scrutiny.

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Posted in Current affairs, Inspirations, Wednesday Pontification
2 comments on “Inspirations: Click ‘Like’ to Enter the Digital Panopticon
  1. Terry Kidd says:

    Excellent post. I’m minded to add that there’s a sense where we already expect to be spied on and just carry on without even bothering to be outraged – perhaps it’s that facebook Skinner box effect.

    When I used to waste way too much of my time hanging out on an internet forum mainly occupied by military aviators I heard it expressed, by people who really should have known better, that the Snowden affair couldn’t be too important because only that left wing rag the Guardian was covering it. At the time it was the first item on the TV news here in Germany but of course all the UK media except the Guardian were complying with a ‘D notice’ that forbad the discussion.

    One might have thought that once the Guardian had broken the story there would have been no point in maintaining the ‘D notice’, But of course the power of the media to influence public opinion – in terms of what constitutes importance or what is only the folly of the left wing media, is just one of the games the British government plays.

    As another child abuse scandal breaks, around another long dead public figure, (this week it’s Ted Heath). I can’t help but wonder how much the ‘D notice’ scheme is used, outside it’s national security remit, to protect some of these criminals.

    • DJ Cockburn says:

      Thanks for an interesting perspective. I was in the UK at the time the Snowden story broke and while I can’t remember where I first heard it, it was pretty hard not to know about it. Now that the internet has blurred the line between local, national and international media, I’m surprised the powers that be are even bothering with D notices.

      I’m not sure what to make of the Ted Heath allegations, though it’s a good thing that someone’s finally looking under the carpets that a lot of things got swept under. Today’s BBC article ( was bizarre, effectively reporting that a former brother keeper denied having accused Heath of anything. I don’t think you, me or next door’s cat accused him either, so why aren’t they reporting that?

      My favourite sentence looks as though it was written by Sir Humphrey: ‘the UK’s historical child sex abuse inquiry is to examine claims about Sir Edward if “the facts justify it”‘, which looks as though it was written by Sir Humphrey. There may or may not be something behind the claims, but there will be no facts to justify an examination of the claims unless the claims are examined.

      The Guardian goes a bit further, saying the IPCC is investigating a claim that a prosecution against the brothel keeper was halted in case Heath’s name got dragged into it. In fairness, the BBC did report that on Monday. After what you said, I’m now wondering if they got D noticed afterwards and today’s strange article was their way of complying with the letter of the notice if not exactly the spirit of it.

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