In memory of George Orwell, tracing the surveillance state from PRISM to the Panopticon

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      This June 25 marks the 110th birthday of George Orwell, the British journalist and writer best known for the dystopian society portrayed in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

      The totalitarian surveillance state Orwell envisioned employs an all-encompassing network of television cameras and microphones to monitor and control an entire citizenry.

      Nineteen Eighty-Four serves as a warning against the invasion of government into private space. However, as two scholars argued in 2007, Orwell’s work might have actually helped open the door for the acceptance of that very sort of subjugation.

      In recent weeks, comparisons have been drawn between the intelligence structure described in Nineteen Eighty-Four and PRISM, the United States National Security Agency program revealed by the Guardian and Washington Post newspapers on June 6.

      The NSA and its counterparts in the Canadian and British governments (CSEC and GCHQ, respectively) go far beyond the sort of camera-based intelligence structure that came to be known as “Big Brother” (named after the cloaked head of government and society in Nineteen Eighty-Four).

      With PRISM, the U.S. government collects location details, emails, chat logs, videos, photographs, documents, and social network transactions, among other categories of data. A separate program revealed by the Guardian and Wall Street Journal is used to monitor telecommunications, including customer records and metadata collected from all major network providers in the United States.

      The extent of post-9/11 surveillance operations renders direct comparisons to Orwell’s Big Brother inadequate. However, that is not to say they are wholly separate.

      In a July 2007 essay titled “The Panopticon’s Changing Geography” published in The Geographic Review, Jerome Dobson and Peter Fisher trace the evolution of the surveillance state back to the Panopticon, an architectural concept developed by Samuel Bentham in the late 18th century.

      “For 220 years the Panopticon has stood as the tangible symbol of total surveillance, discipline, and control,” they write. “Always it has been the utopian dream of some and hellish nightmare of others.”

      Dobson and Fisher note that since the 1970s, the Panopticon has largely lost its literal meaning, and is instead more commonly used as a metaphor for surveillance and power relationships. (This idea was largely developed by the French philosopher Michel Foucault, as discussed in his seminal work, Discipline and Punish.)

      Dobson and Fisher describe three stages through which the Panopticon has developed as a means of surveillance and control.

      The first is physical; Bentham’s structural manifestation utilizes a circular design to maximize the optical advantage of those in authority to an extreme where a single operator can exert control over a large number of subjects. This literal version of the Panopticon has served as a source of inspiration for the construction of many prisons, though it has seldom been followed with precision.

      Panopticon II is Orwell’s version, where technology in the form of cameras and microphones is used to drastically extend the reach of an operator’s visibility beyond a single building, throughout both the public and private spaces of an entire country. Dobson and Fisher argue that the proliferation of closed-circuit television cameras favoured by the British government, for example, suggests that western society is already far along in accepting the implementation of Big Brother-style surveillance (with security being the benefit for which the intrusion of privacy is accepted).

      Graffiti on the wall of the British Library in London, presumably in protest against the proliferation of CCTV cameras in the area.

      The third manifestation of the Panopticon focuses on location, utilizing human-tracking systems and employing devices such as mobile phones, computers connected to the Internet, or anything equipped with a global position system (GPS).

      While Dobson and Fisher’s description of Panopticon III was constructed six years before the public learned about the scope of the NSA and partner governments’ intelligence-gathering operations, it is significantly closer in concept than the system described in Nineteen Eighty-Four. (However, Dobson and Fisher failed to note that location is only one piece of metadata created by a telephone call or interaction with the Internet, and that many others can be monitored just as easily.)

      “All three Panopticons are designed to maintain continuous surveillance, reduce the cost of surveillance, and improve the efficiency of surveillance,” Dobson and Fisher write. “In the first two, absolute control over human actions was an express purpose of the proposed surveillance. Both were designed solely as instruments of government or commerce that required total submission to absolute authority.”

      Panopticon III is different because of the benefits its tools offer to those being watched; namely, communication and entertainment. “Panopticon III is seductive,” Dobson and Fisher continue. “It is less confining, less visible, and therefore less frightening than its predecessors….Indeed, the simplest devices are carried willingly and obsessively by the watched.”

      In a section of the paper subtitled “Orwell’s Wolf”, Dobson and Fisher suggest one reason societies may act complacently in the face of government overreach may be the proliferation of the themes presented in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

      “By any reasonable measure, Panopticon III is bound to have an impact on society that will be far greater in magnitude than the actual application of Bentham’s Panopticon and more predictably certain than Orwell’s Big Brother,” they explain. “Why so little interest? It may be due in part to Orwell’s over-the-top success in “crying wolf.” He cried it so well, and the cry was repeated so fervently so often by so many, that most people eventually became inured. After a while, the cry of Big Brother lost its sting.”

      The full text of Dobson and Fisher’s “The Panopticon’s Changing Geography” is available here. Sections of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish are available in a preview at Google Books here.

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