Monday 24 June 2013

Panopticons: A How To Guide

Innocent until proven guilty. Turns out it's a threat, not a promise

Hello viewers! And hello to the world’s security services. It’s great to see so many of you here tonight.

The dog is here. Here is the dog.

Panopticons eh? They’re pretty great. A hypothetical prison design by Jeremy Bentham, the term has been co-opted to mean a particular kind of self-imposed behaviour change. The original idea was to construct a prison with a central guard tower and cells arranged in a circle around the tower in such a way that all of them could be observed from that tower. Because even a single guard could be observing any cell, at any time, and the prisoners could never know if they were being observed or not, they would act as if they were being observed at all times.

No-one ever built a Panopticon, but the word is now often used to describe any system of mass-surveillance. I, along with every single human being with internet access, have already compared Facebook to a Panopticon, and the word is getting a second tour of duty with the revelation that at least the US and UK governments are capable of looking at basically anything you do online. Which they have to do because Terrorism.

It’s cool when they do it in a Bond movie

But are PRISM (not prison) et al actually Panopticons? Well, they certainly weren’t. They sort of are now. They could certainly become one, red in tooth and claw. See, for a Panopticon to do its work - its work, remember, being self-imposed behaviour change, acting as if you are being observed when you may or not actually be observed - there are three requirements.

Guys, no wait, guys, listen. No guys, listen.
I have an idea.

The first is that it must be physically possible to construct a system capable of observing the prisoners (not PRISMers). Well we know that one’s sorted now. 

We can build handcuffs.

The second is that the prisoners (not PRISMERS! Reaction to that one holding steady at the front, some laughs over here, but really not much happening towards the back of the room.) must know that they are in a Panopticon. After all, folk are not going to behave as if they think they are being watched, if they don’t think they are being watched. Self-evident, yes, but important here. Why go to all the trouble of observing every piece of online traffic created if you’re not going to tell people about it? Terribly inefficient. 

We are wearing handcuffs.

The third, and most important, is that occasionally, you have to drag one of the prisoners (not PRISMers) out of their cell and give them a bloody good thrashing, right where all the other prisoners (not PRISMers) can see. There must be consequences to failing to observe the rules of the Panopticon. 

This is the key that locks the handcuffs and so far, this hasn’t happened.

With all this in mind, PRISMNOTPRISON is a great start, and the revelations of its existence are certainly a step in the right direction, but for the iron boot to really start upping its stamping-on-a-human-face-forever game, they need to start acting on the information they’re getting. If they just stand around looking, no-one’s really going to descend into a living nightmare from which there is no escape, and we can’t have that.

I’m bored of the PRISMERS thing now.

The irony of this, of course, is Panopticons are about self-imposed behaviour change, they’re only good at controlling pretty low-level infractions. The kind of crimes that a fear of punishment might effect. In other words, mass-surveillance is only *not* about stopping terrorism and child porn.

What do you mean you forgot the chicken nuggets?

With the unveiling of PRISM, the first two parts of the digital Panopticon are now in place. And whatever is said from here on in, no-one is seriously going to believe that this spigot is ever actually going to be turned off. Indeed, more to the point, I doubt many of us don’t now assume that everyone else is doing it too, the US and UK just faced the public first. That’s it now, this is a thing and it won’t go away, ever.

So my advice to the US government is to take the opportunity and start acting on this stuff now. Then we can all just get on with living in constant, unbridled fear for the rest of our lives. A decisive victory in the War on Terror, I think you’ll all agree.

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