Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Super-Panopticons & the Surveillant Assemblage

“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (But who will watch the watchmen?)[i]

- Juvenal

Each time humanity explores new territory, encounters change, or makes a significant step forward in terms of technology, the questions fearfully and immediately arise: What will be the power structure? How will control be assured? Can instinctual impulses be contained? This would suggest a fear that powerful instinctual impulses will run amok in new and unfamiliar terrain – a frightening prospect that threatens a “return” to our primeval past. And now consider the notion that we are on the verge of “globalization,” with all of the limitless potential and uncertainty that this entails. Who will be at the top of the power hierarchy? Will China or India surpass the global dominance of the U.S?[i] What will this mean for the future?

Subsequent to 9/11, fear of terrorist attacks have swept the globe, leading to an emphasis on improved “intelligence” efforts. Such intelligence comes from a multitude of rhyzomatic networks of surveillance assisted by orbital panopticons (satellite surveillance) on high alert. Our drive for surveillance has most certainly followed us out into space, where we fear that unlimited consumption and satisfaction of needs will lead to a new brand of “cosmic narcissism.”[ii] By use of surveillance satellites, we have replaced God in the Heavens with an “eye in the sky.”[iii] For those requiring an angry, vengeful deity, they may be comforted by the presence of weapons poised at the ready in “Star Wars” satellite defense systems. In the future, the U.S. may suspend tungsten rods (hailed as “rods from God”) from satellites that can be dropped with pinpoint accuracy to destroy underground nuclear facilities.[iv] Thus, the pattern of sending forth various forms of super ego-like monitoring invariably usher in each new stage of human advancement. From Bentham’s Panopticon to today’s nanotechnology and planetary panopticons, we must carefully “supervise” each new step with a vigilant gaze.

As technology has advanced, it is becoming apparent that the observation will not be centralized as with Bentham’s panopticon, but will be decentralized and spread out diffusely through a variety of technologies. For example, nano-technology may provide various invisible tags embedded into clothing, radio frequency identity chips (RFIDs) and other means of surrounding ourselves with ambient intelligence.[i] This “nano-panopticism” would stretch the web of societal surveillance to new and undreamt of lengths. At some point, one must consider the bewildering implications of the convergence of all the various forms of surveillance technology, which may have the effect of producing a “surveillant assemblage” with the potential to reassemble information flow into virtual “data doubles” of the individual.[ii] Such data doubles can be effectively scrutinized and targeted for select purposes. One has only to purchase a book on Amazon.com to experience this reality. A return to the website will offer a list of recommended books, based on past purchases, which becomes ever more refined as more purchases are made. Thus, a “general tide of surveillance washes over us all,” and has the effect of “transforming” humans into “pure information” which is easier to manage.[iii]

Will it ultimately be the technology of surveillance that is responsible for societal morality as opposed to religion? Will “divine command theory” give way to soul training via surveillance? Consider a case (Kyllo v. U.S.) in which remote sensing techniques allowed law enforcement to detect cannabis growing in a defendant’s home.[iv] Already, the FBI and other forms of law enforcement tap into and commingle various independent, and often commercial databases. The Patriot Act has further enhanced law enforcement authority to procure private, commercial data. Advancing surveillance technology has led to a “disappearance of disappearance,” in which it is increasingly impossible to maintain anonymity and escape monitoring.[v] Financial institutions now monitor and report “suspicious transactions.” Indeed, this data source was the very undoing of former NY Governor Eliot Spitzer, whose own bank was required to report his “suspicious financial activity” to the IRS.[vi] At least it would seem that with this new brand of surveillance-enforced morality, leaders and others at the top of the hierarchy are not exempt – as long as they too are being watched.

In forensic psychiatry, I have been introduced to the power of surveillance technology in its many forms. There is a forensic principle which states, “Wherever he steps, whatever he touches, whatever he leaves, even unconsciously, will serve as a silent witness against him…”[vii] In effect, the criminal cannot commit a crime without either leaving a piece of himself, or taking a piece of the crime scene with him. As surveillance technology advances, this “exchange principle” only gains in its momentum. Criminal suspects are frequently caught by simply following the trail of their credit purchases. I now receive reams of archived text messages, forever retrievable, sent by a criminal defendant around the time of the alleged offense. Surveillance cameras posted in stores and city streets capture the exact date, time and movements of a suspect. Insurance companies regularly hire private detectives to surreptitiously video plaintiffs alleging disabilities.

Of course not every advancement in surveillance technology will seem immediately problematic, and many will appear quite helpful. Planetary panopticons powered by supercomputers will be able to provide more accurate and timely warnings about natural disasters or global warming.[viii] We will be able to monitor our home planet in a more “protective” and altruistic manner. Yet there will certainly be concern that the evolving surveillance technology may be used in unanticipated ways that present serious privacy issues. Indeed, the very notion and boundaries of privacy will, of necessity, evolve. We have already born witness to this with the Internet, as well as patient confidentiality in medicine. Such advances may have the effect of limiting one’s “moral autonomy,” and compromising one’s freedom to present her own self-selected “moral identity.”[ix] Thus, privacy concerns may shift from constraining information flow, to the design and use of continuous surveillance technology.

[i] Juvenal: Satire VI. Loeb Classical Library edition translated by G.G. Ramsay. At: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/juvenal-satvi.html (accessed: 5/13/08).
[i] Buruma I: After America: Is the West being overtaken by the rest? The New Yorker. April 21, 2008, pps. 126-130.
[ii] Dickens P, Ormrod J: Outer Space and Internal Nature: Towards a Sociology of the Universe. Sociology, 2007; 41(4): 609-626.
[iii] Weiner T: Pentagon Envisioning a Costly Internet for War. New York Times, November 13, 2004.
[iv] Shainin J: Rods From God. New York Times, December 10, 2006.

[i] Van Den Hoven J, Vermaas P: Nano-Technology and Privacy: On Continuous Surveillance Outside the Panopticon. J Medicine and Phil, 2007; 32: 283-297.
[ii] Haggerty K, Ericson R: The surveillant assemblage. Br Journ Sociology, 2000; 51(4): 605-622.
[iii] Haggerty K, Ericson R: The surveillant assemblage. Br Journ Sociology, 2000; 51(4): 605-622.
[iv] Kyllo v. U. S., 533 US 27 (2001)
[v] Haggerty K, Ericson R: The surveillant assemblage. Br Journ Sociology, 2000; 51(4): 605-622.
[vi] Ross B: It wasn’t the sex: Suspicous $$ transfers led to Spitzer. ABC News. March 10, 2008. At: http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/story?id=4424507&page=1 Accessed: 5/17/2008
[vii] Locard’s Exchange Principle. Professor Edmond Locard
[viii] Butler D: The Planetary Panopticon. Nature, 2007; 450(6): 778-780.
[ix] Van Den Hoven J, Vermaas P: Nano-Technology and Privacy: On Continuous Surveillance Outside the Panopticon. J Medicine and Phil, 2007; 32: 283-297.

1 comment:

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