The American Panopticon

Blueprint of the Panopticon by Jeremy Bentham

By Dennis Behreandt

In 1787, philosopher and economist Jeremy Bentham proposed a new plan for a jail that would allow a very few officials to continuously monitor the inmates. He called his plan the panopticon.

“The essence of it consists, then, in the centrality of the inspector’s situation, combined with the well-known and most effectual contrivances for seeing without being seen,” he wrote in describing his plan. Under the plan, because the inspector — i.e., the jailer — could see without being seen, the inmates could never know whether they were being watched or not. As a result, they had to assume that they were under complete surveillance at all times, with the hoped-for result being that they would modify their behavior accordingly.

Describing Bentham’s plan for the panopticon in 1975, French philosopher Michel Foucalt, noted that it was intended,

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 at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so.

This is a clever and efficient plan for a jail. But Bentham pointed out that it has applications far wider than just in correctional facilities. In introducing the subject, he wrote that it would be applicable and useful in a wide range of endeavors, “whether it be that of punishing the incorrigible, guarding the insane, reforming the vicious, confining the suspected, employing the idle, maintaining the helpless, curing the sick, instructing the willing in any branch of industry, or training the rising race in the path of education: in a word, whether it be applied to the purposes of perpetual prisons in the room of death, or prisons for confinement before trial, or penitentiary-houses, or houses of correction, or work-houses, or manufactories, or mad-houses, or hospitals, or schools.”

It is important to note that Bentham’s plan was dependent on architecture, the actual design of a building that was to house one of the activities he mentioned. As a result, in Bentham’s view, the operation of a panopticon was localized and specific to the population of a specific building and it has no broader application than that.

Unfortunately, times have changed. Western nations, led by the United States, are now rapidly building the ultimate panopticon, one that is potentially global in scope.

It is unclear to what extent Americans are already monitored, but the evidence suggests that federal intelligence agencies began aggressively collecting American citizens’ telecommunications data as early as 2002. According to AT&T technician and whistleblower Mark Klein, that was when the NSA arrived at the facility he worked at and began stitching a surveillance backbone into AT&T’s systems.

Summing up what Klein discovered, Wired reported in 2006: “AT&T provided National Security Agency eavesdroppers with full access to its customers’ phone calls, and shunted its customers’ internet traffic to data-mining equipment installed in a secret room in its San Francisco switching center, according to a former AT&T worker [Klein] cooperating in the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s lawsuit against the company.”

A variety of other means have also been used in the years after 9/11 to monitor Americans. Now, the FBI wants to monitor everything Americans say on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter and Google+ as well as blogs and, presumably comments on news and blog sites.

“The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is looking to develop a Web app that can continuously monitor social networks, including Facebook, Twitter, and Myspace, as well as various news feeds. The organization’s goal is to improve its real-time intelligence when it comes to current and emerging security threats,” ZDnet reported.

In this never ending rush to improve security, what is being lost is the concept of what it means to be a free people. In rushing to build an all-encompassing digital panopticon, the country is abandoning its heritage of freedom and building the infrastructure for the most thoroughgoing police state the world has seen.

If you doubt this latter statement, consider a comparison with the East German communist state, heretofore widely considered to be history’s most “efficient” police surveillance state.

Internal national security in the East German state was the province of the hated and feared secret police, the Stasi. Much as the US national security state today, the East Germans were quite keen to keep everyone under surveillance at all times, or to give the distinct impression that they were doing so.

TheIr methods, absent today’s digital tools and computing power, were different but no less ominous. Rather than bits and bytes, the Stasi used people, both adults and children. There were the officers and regular staff of the Stasi, numbering as many as 100,000 people when the East German government collapsed in 1989.

In addition to the regular officers and staff, the Stasi relied on an army of informers. Known as inoffizielle Mitarbeiter (IM), it has been estimated that as many as 500,000 East Germans worked as IMs. Other estimates are higher. A former member of the Stasi, Colonel Ranier Wiegand, estimated that as many as 2 million East Germans served as IMs. These weren’t just adults, either. Writing in the New York Times, John O. Koehler pointed out that “researchers were aghast when they found that about 10,000 IMs … had not yet reached the age of 18.”

In the police state that was the communist dictatorship of East Germany, you never knew if you were being watched. Worse, you never knew if it would be your own children who were watching and who might turn you in to the state over a careless word spoken during an evening meal.

Koehler put the Stasi’s fearsome reach into perspective:

To ensure that the people would become and remain submissive, East German communist leaders saturated their realm with more spies than had any other totalitarian government in recent history. The Soviet Union’s KGB employed about 480,000 full-time agents to oversee a nation of 280 million, which means there was one agent per 5,830 citizens. Using [Simon] Wiesenthal’s figures for the Nazi Gestapo, there was one officer for 2,000 people. The ratio for the Stasi was one secret policeman per 166 East Germans. When the regular informers are added, these ratios become much higher: In the Stasi’s case, there would have been at least one spy watching every 66 citizens! When one adds in the estimated numbers of part-time snoops, the result is nothing short of monstrous: one informer per 6.5 citizens. It would not have been unreasonable to assume that at least one Stasi informer was present in any party of ten or twelve dinner guests.

In practice, this meant that every East German citizen had to assume that they were under surveillance at all times, just the goal of the panopticon. The effect was chilling. Again, Koehler describes the outcome:

If a relative or friend came to stay overnight, it was reported. Schools, universities, and hospitals were infiltrated from top to bottom. German academe was shocked to learn that Heinrich Fink, professor of theology and vice chancellor at East Berlin’s Humboldt University, had been a Stasi informer since 1968. After Fink’s Stasi connections came to light, he was summarily fired. Doctors, lawyers, journalists, writers, actors, and sports figures were co-opted by Stasi officers, as were waiters and hotel personnel. Tapping about 100,000 telephone lines in West Germany and West Berlin around the clock was the job of 2,000 officers.

The parallels to today are themselves monstrously frightening. As thorough as was the Stasi, it had to use millions of officers and informants to build its surveillance state.

By contrast, today America’s burgeoning panopticon can dispense with unreliable humans and can monitor citizen activity automatically via server farms, algorithms, text mining, and the Internet.

Self-Educated American associate editor, Dennis Behreandt, is the Founder and Editor In Chief of the American Daily Herald. Mr. Behreandt has written hundreds of articles on subjects ranging from natural theology to history and from science and technology to philosophy. His research interests include the period of late antiquity in European history as well as Medieval and Renaissance history.