The NSA Revelations and the Establishment of the Digital Panopticon

A Story of Unintended Consequences


On June 5th, 2013, The Guardian published what would be one of the controversial headlines of the year: “NSA collecting phone records of millions of Verizon customers daily.” This piece was the first in a series of articles by The Guardian that revealed the extent of digital surveillance by government agencies. While the explicit purpose of these articles was to create public discourse around these programs, the revelations had two additional, largely unintended consequences. Firstly, informing citizens of the omnipresence of government surveillance helped to establish a digital panopticon that forces citizens to become complicit in their own subjugation. Secondly, the discourse that was created began to normalize the role of surveillance as a benevolent observer. Ultimately, the revelations served to strengthen the position of government surveillance within our society.

The Guardian’s first two stories covered two controversial programs, cell phone metadata collection and the PRISM program. The articles informed the public that the metadata collection program requires telecommunication providers to “on an ‘ongoing, daily basis’…give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its systems,” and that the PRISM program allows the NSA “direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other US internet giants.” These programs were met with considerable public backlash, as some people believe they constitute spying on Americans without any suspicion of wrongdoing. In just a few days, the NSA went from just another government agency to the center of public consciousness. The public knowledge of government surveillance programs have played a key role in the establishment of a digital panopticon.

The Panopticon — Image from Wikipedia

To understand the digital panopticon, we first must understand the traditional Panopticon. Jeremy Bentham designed the Panopticon as an architectural method of social control. The Panopticon was a physical prison designed to instill within the prisoners a state of permanent visibility by instituting a surveillance system that was both visible and unverifiable. The prison designed featured a circular building surrounding a central guard tower. The prisoners cells faced inward so that they were constantly visible, and the lighting prevented the prisoners from seeing if a guard was watching them or not. Michel Foucault argued the Panopticon was effective because it forced prisoners to feel as though they are constantly being watched, even though they were only being watched sometimes. For Foucault, this system forced the prisoners to internalize the rules and norms imposed by the institution in order to avoid being caught violating them. These ideas can be applied directly to our modern surveillance system to understand how it represents a digital panopticon.

The public discourse surrounding government surveillance programs has normalized government digital surveillance as a benevolent observer. Much of the public discussion about these programs has contended that those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear. Stephen Colbert has said, “I don't necessarily want people reading my emails but I'm not a spy, I don’t run a crime syndicate.” This view is not held only by those in the media, but in academia as well. Scholar David Weinberger contends that the only self monitoring that the NSA revelations have induced is that “some of us are deterred from innocuous behavior (such as emailing the sentence “The band bombed at the El Morocco on Friday”)”. This line of discussion implies a vague and inaccurate conception of government surveillance programs as benevolent public servants. In reality, the NSA has conducted invasive surveillance into the personal lives of civilians to gain leverage over them. Recent documents leaked by Edward Snowden reveal the NSA has tracked the pornographic viewing habits of Muslim Americans. The documents “identify six Muslim targets as ‘exemplars’ of ‘how “personal vulnerabilities” can be learned through electronic surveillance, and then exploited to undermine a target’s credibility, reputation and authority.’” The bulk storage of communications data could serve as a gold mine of information for those looking to blackmail virtually anyone. As long as public discourse surrounding surveillance programs ignores the strong potential for abuse these programs present, they become more acceptable to the general public and more dangerous to the civil rights of American citizens.

The revelations by the Guardian regarding government digital surveillance programs have created a public dialogue that has increased the visibility of an already unverifiable method of surveillance and normalized this surveillance. By expanding on Foucault’s ideas of the Panopticon, we can understand that this increased visibility has helped to establish and strengthen the modern digital panopticon, and serves to force citizens to internalize the norms imposed by the surveillance agencies. While these norms are currently lenient, strengthening the visibility of the system serves to legitimize digital surveillance as a means of social control, and sets the stage for the expansion of the norms that are policed within the digital panopticon.

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