Are we living in this societal Panopticon, where we use bits of sticky paper to cover the fronts of our PC webcams, or think twice about doing something in public without the thought of someone watching us through CCTV cameras? Where has this technological paranoia come from? And do we have valid reasons to take extra precautions?
The concept of ‘Big Brother’ derived from George Orwell’s novel ‘Nighteen Eighty Four’ shares the idea that society is kept under constant surveillance by the authorities using ‘telescreens’. Back in the day, these telescreens were no more advance than analogue cameras and videocassette recordings.
In the recent 21st century, technology has evolved like no other, becoming innovative, powerful and ambiguous–in the sense that we are unaware of the associated risks. Latest digital technology can be universally connected via series of computer networks, where billions of digital devices are interconnected and stripped real time data and information; denoting this era of ‘Big Brother 2.0’.
Big Brother was used to describe the abuse of power, lack of privacy and an overly controlling authority figure who carried out mass surveillance, although some viewed it as a form of government protection. Consequently we are still under a certain degree of abuse, social control, and puppets of our own government system, being vigilantly controlled, whether this is in the form of CCTV cameras, facial and audio recognition, government’s access to our social media networks, mobile phone tracking and tapping, RFID chips etc.
One could argue within the next decade privacy would be just a myth. The only thing that could ever be private is what is in our hearts or minds, but devious technologies are also being designed in ways to stimulate peoples thinking, logic and reasoning for various medical/psychological purposes.
As technology is evolving, do we ever think about the amount of information we are sharing? Where the data from these technologies is going or who is benefiting from it? Are we even aware of the risks associated with technological abuse?
Speaking of technological abuse, today’s Metro’s front page headline read ‘200,000 nude snapchat user photos hacked’ where half were thought to be nude photographs from children’s accounts aged 13–17. Although this news story didn’t surprise me, I began to wonder how exactly is the ‘privacy’ aspect of these social media really private at all?
Our personal digital content is not physically tangible to us, so one should never expect it to be of ‘private content’. Rather, It is stored on a central online cloud storage system that forms our ‘private’ data.
This news story reaffirms the idea that our privacy is compromised on virtual platforms as well as in our day–to–day lives.
Privacy researcher, Christopher Soghoian delivered on TED Talks of how the government is utilising technology from private companies to gain access to digital devices, to monitor online/offline activity and steal confidential information without any signs of detection. So imagine being oblivious to the fact that authorities are monitoring you through your computer webcam and microphone. This thought provokes paranoia and questions the right to privacy? Soghoian also mentioned how the police have the capacity to carry out this remote monitoring procedure on people they deem criminals or suspicious to crime.
Michael Foucault mentions in Discipline and Punish (1975) of ‘technologies of punishment’, of which he describes Jeremy Bentham’s design of the ‘Panopticon’ to illustrate the impact of constant surveillance has on individuals in prison like institutions, and the effect it has on wider society. The ‘Panopticon’ was primarily a circular based prison design where prisoners were unable to see one another, yet the guards had a 360-degree view of all inmates through a central station.
Foucault theorized the panopticon as this ‘automatic functioning of power’ where inmates psychologically knew that they are being watched so would maintain social order in the prison. Likewise, one could argue that society is a panopticon, controlled by ‘Big Brother 2.0’?
Increasingly social media such as Facebook and Twitter could be seen as developing into a panopticon. We use these platforms to upload a desirable version of ourselves to impress the ‘watchmen’ i.e. Our friends/family and people who view our profiles. Hence people’s judgments are somewhat socially constructing our behaviour, providing us with this ‘self surveillance’ to ensure that we are conforming to what our network of friends want to see. Facebook’s updating your status feature (‘What is on your mind?’) allows users to develop a personal comfort level with the application, but unknowingly makes them victims of targeted sales and advertisements based on their shared data. Therefore digital technology has the power to monitor and influence the behaviour of its users mind, just as Bentham’s Panopticon had the power to observe the physical behaviour of the inmates.
Peter Vlemmix’s documentary on the existence of how this ‘digital panopticon is implicating our rights to privacy’ shows how the Dutch government (like any other government) are also integrating sophisticated surveillance technology. From Facial and Audio recognition in buses, Age detector machines to purchase alcohol in local shops, Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR), CCTV Cameras and much more. But what was interesting to see is how oblivious people were to the type of information that was being collected by authorities. For instance, when passengers boarded the public Bus, a discrete facial recognition camera system captured their faces and ran a background profile check, comprising of personal data. This data was then stored on the transport data system for months before deleted, which makes one skeptical to think how authorities can take advantage of this, without the right to privacy being compromised.
Is our government cementing this ‘panopticon’, solely for the sake of our security? Or are there also additional hidden agendas that we are not clued up on? Who knows? Hence having technological paranoia is not being unreasonable, but is being practical and taking precautionary to what information is being spoon-fed by our government.