The Internet as a Reverse Panopticon

C. Dianne Martin is Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at George Washington University, and Adjunct Professor in the School of Information, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has been teaching Computers and Society since 1983.

This article is adapted from one published March, 2013, in the ACM SIGCSE Inroads Magazine. 

In 1787 Jeremy Bentham, the British Utilitarian philosopher and penal reform theorist, wrote a series of letters in which he proposed a Panopticon (all-seeing), also called The Inspection-House.  His letters put forward “the idea of a new principle of construction applicable to any sort of establishment, in which persons of any description are to be kept under inspection”. For the next 16 years he was obsessed with the desire to implement his model prison design, which he believed would transform penal methods by drastically cutting cost through significant downsizing of the workforce needed to oversee prison populations.  He also felt such prisons would have positive moral value to the prisoners.

The Panopticon was to be a multi-level, circular building with a shuttered guard tower in the center.  Each cell would be open to the center so that it could be surveilled from the guard tower.  The new wrinkle to this system was that the prisoners would never know when they were being watched.   According to Bentham, this type of prison would function as a round-the-clock surveillance machine. Its design ensured that no prisoner could ever see the ‘inspector’ who conducted surveillance from the privileged central tower.  Since the prisoner could never know when he was being surveilled, the mental uncertainty would prove to be a crucial instrument of self- discipline and control.  The price for this control would be total loss of any sense of privacy.  

Bentham was never successful in realizing his Panopticon dream during his lifetime due to budget disagreements with the British government; however, a number of prisons have since been built around the world with a similar design in mind.  And the idea of using unseen surveillance as a mode of control and deterrence has certainly been employed in many venues.   

The French philosopher Michel Foucault further elaborated on the implications of ‘Panopticism’ in his 1975 work Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison: “Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers. To achieve this, it is at once too much and too little that the prisoner should be constantly observed by an inspector: too little, for what matters is that he knows himself to be observed; too much, because he has no need in fact of being so.   

“In view of this, Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so…The Panopticon is a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad: in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen.” 

Foucault then used the notion of the Panopticon as a metaphor for modern society.  He talked about the visibility trap, with control being exercised over individuals through the increased visibility of modern life in all aspects.  He stated that greater visibility leads to power exercised on increasingly individualized levels with the possibility for institutions or governments to be able to track individuals throughout their lives. Almost 40 years ago Foucault warned that we are all connected by the (witting or unwitting) supervision or surveillance of some humans by others. The greater the visibility, the more surveillance is possible, and the more profound is the impact on privacy loss.  Had Foucault lived to see lives made visible on the ubiquitous Internet, he certainly would have concluded that the Panopticon had arrived in digital form.  What he might not have predicted, however, was that we would live in a reverse Panopticon; that is, each of us would be in a metaphorical glass tower, with “inspectors” in shuttered rooms all around us.  Instead of the one guard to many prisoners of Bentham’s model prison, we are like one prisoner surrounded by many guards. 

In the early years of computing, as the government discovered the benefits of keeping data in electronic databases, privacy concerns focused on the Big Brother of government.  The first Privacy Act of 1974 was passed to protect citizens against heavy-handed government record-keeping.   The Privacy Act of 1974, Public Law 93-579, was created in response to concerns about how the creation and use of computerized databases might impact individuals’ privacy rights. It was designed to safeguard privacy through creating four procedural and substantive rights in personal data.  First, it required government agencies to show an individual any records kept on him or her. Second, it required agencies to follow certain principles, called “fair information practices,” when gathering and handling personal data. Third, it placed restrictions on how agencies can share an individual’s data with other people and agencies. Fourth, it let individuals sue the government for violating its provisions.  

Over time it became apparent that the real threat to privacy from databases was not from government, but from the private sector.  Huge databases of demographic information about citizens were amassed by a number of large companies whose business was to sell the data to enable other companies to do targeted marketing. As the internet evolved, it became possible for commercial internet sites to gather this data on the fly from people who visited or did business with their website.  The Google data empire is the ultimate example of such data gathering and data mining.   Data is gathered by the terabyte from Google searches, email, and web-surfing.  The Internet has become a virtual reverse Panopticon, in which people’s lives are now open for inspection at many different levels – personal tastes, politics, family ties, intellectual interests, sexual preferences, health concerns, the list goes on.  

To bring this home, let’s look at a recent event.  The question I have heard repeated many times is, Hillary Clinton can’t keep her email secret, then who can?  That may be the wrong question to ask.   The real issue is how do we manage privacy expectations in an evolving digital world where our lives and data are becoming more and more visible?  With powerful search engine tools now available to everyone, it does not take the FBI to find out highly personal information about most people.   Many people are choosing to make themselves very visible in online glass houses through their participation in Facebook, in blogs, through Twitter and email, through virtual environments like Second Life.  The more we allow our lives to be made visible, that is, to be lived online, the more we should expect our lives to be open for inspection.  

Security experts believe that hacking has become so widespread, no one’s email is safe from spying eyes, and this is not necessarily hacking from malicious, anonymous hackers.  A lot of the hacking is now done by people who know each other breaking into each other’s email accounts.  If a person’s email account is at a private company, a university or government agency, there should be no expectation of privacy for that account.  Most computer usage or employment agreements with those entities clearly state that the computer resources belong to the entity, not the individual, giving the entity the right to track computer usage, log all email, and even keep an electronic eye on postings made by the individual on blogs or Facebook.  

The constant possibility of being surveilled electronically reinforces the notion that the Internet has indeed become Foucault’s virtual Panopticon.  Like the prisoners in Bentham’s model prison, individuals may start to inhibit their speech and actions for fear of being watched or judged by some unknown entities.  This tension between digital visibility and control presents an interesting topic of discussion for computer science courses dealing with databases, data mining, and network security.  As future computer scientists our students will become the architects and maybe even inspectors of the digital reverse Panopticon. 


Do you inhibit your internet speech and actions for fear of being watched or judged? How do you weigh the trade-offs between convenience and privacy afforded today by social media? Should government take a stronger had in controlling surveillance by the private sector? 

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