Age of surveillance

Technological marvels are leading to panoptical nations

By Anup Sinha
  • Published 23.02.18

In the contemporary world of technological marvels surveillance has become omnipresent. The boundaries between private and public spaces have become indistinct. Quite often we are unaware of how and why we are being watched. In other cases, we are unsure, so we refrain from expressing ourselves in the fear of unpleasant consequences. Only recently my friends from undergraduate days formed a WhatsApp group to be in touch with one another after almost 50 years. All my friends are talented in various ways and well read and informed. Many of them were politically active in college and have critical opinions about many aspects of society and polity. However, it was consciously decided that we would not have any form of political debates of any colour, not even indulge in mild satire, since we were unsure of the consequences. This was decided, in spite of the claims of end-to-end encryption by the service provider. We have a lot of exchanges in the group, but alas, politics does not exist for us. Sometimes, I feel we have become impotent regarding raising questions and resisting oppression. Big Brother is here to stay.

It is not that surveillance is a recent phenomenon. It was there for many centuries, mainly in the form of face to face watching, interception of letters, espionage and, more recently, telephone tapping. With the arrival of the internet and social media the ability to monitor and observe has increased manifold. Every keystroke leaves an indelible mark in cyberspace, every telephone conservation can be tracked down, and every face recorded on a closed circuit television camera can be linked to Facebook accounts and credit card records. We are watched in the office, in the hospital, in the streets, in shops and malls, airports, stations and movie theatres. Our purchases are known, every website we visit is traceable, our medical records are not shared merely between the doctor and us, and what we eat, where we travel, what movies we see, what books we read are all known. This knowledge, however, is known only to a few. We do not know about others, and we are unclear about who knows how much about us. The knowledge is asymmetric.

It is often argued that to better govern society, politicians and bureaucrats need efficient means of control. Speed and accuracy of information are important elements in this quest for efficiency. Information is obtained from observations. Modern technology has offered a myriad new ways of observing many different facets of an individual's life and activities. There are many smaller organizations, distinct from the State's surveillance apparatus, which also collect enormous data about our daily activities and ourselves. The wealth of data that internet providers, credit card companies, e-shops, insurance companies, banks and hospitals have about us is amazing. We have entered the era of big data. These data can be analysed and patterns found with the help of algorithms. Predictions can be made about us. We can be profiled as to who we truly are. Machine intelligence knows more about who we are than we know ourselves. Hence, if we search an e-book shop for left-wing literature we may be profiled as a revolutionary capable of violence.

There are a number of reasons given to us as to why this surveillance should not worry a 'good' citizen. State surveillance will help identify the bad guys - the criminals and terrorists and the anti-nationals; in short, the mischief makers. The good people will be made safe and secure. The smaller corporations use our personal data for profits. It is fairly innocuous. They can predict what we will buy next, or where we might take our next vacation, and on that basis try to sell us products. It is an efficient business practice. In fact, business analytics using big data is a craze in top-end business schools. And why not? Do we not on our own volition post a whole lot of personal information and images on social media like Facebook? Some of us post minute private details too. So it is no big deal at all. Privacy is bunk. Each life is an open book for business and government to examine and record.

In such a milieu, few realize the importance of privacy and its relationship to freedom. First, consider the fact that we do often post intimate details about ourselves in the age of selfies. Yet it is still what we choose to post and hence our individual decision. The loss of privacy could well entail that one has no right to even private property. Think what would happen to the economy and the foundation of a capitalist market economy. The business corporations coerce us through the data they monitor to buy things and lead our lives in a fashion that helps them make profits. We are subtly coerced into a consumerism that leaves us little choice to question and reflect on our lifestyles and spending patterns. Our tastes are created by the hidden persuaders in the advertisement world. There is a continuous bombardment of images of the 'good life'.

Privacy is important for a number of other reasons too. It sets a limit on the power of the rulers precisely because they may not know everything about us. Privacy is also about respect for the individual and her space which cannot be intruded upon without her consent. There is also a more nuanced issue of reputation management. We may not like something specific to be known about us by everyone. We may have made a mistake once and would not like to be judged on that misjudgment alone. In short, privacy is about our own control over our own lives.

State surveillance is more intense. It not only has its own apparatus, it can also creep in to the data gathered by business organizations in the name of security and national interests. The State's surveillance mechanism is like Jeremy Bentham's panopticon - a prison where every inmate is watched from a veiled tower. The inmate is not sure that she is being watched. The sheer possibility of that occurring may force obedience to the rules set by the observer in the tower. There is no need for violence to control. Obedience comes out of the threat of violence. State surveillance is not to prevent crime but to defend the power of the ruling class. Crime or violence has not really reduced with the spread of CCTVs or unique identification cards. It is about asymmetric power that is obscure to the governed. It is like Kafka's The Trial where the reasons for being hauled up are not known. The Sate can clearly make mistakes. However, much more than that, State surveillance is never politically neutral. It is targeted against particular groups or minorities. People are profiled and lies are created with manipulations of data. The violence underlying State surveillance is structural. It is built into systems of governance. Structural coercion also helps extend the control exerted by the ruling class into making profits. The inmates can be asked to be obedient workers to produce the things that are desirable by the powers that be. The knowledge about us is the strength of the rulers. We can have a panoptical hospital, school, office, mental ward, shopping mall, streets, temples and perhaps even homes. We now have panoptical nations.

The age of surveillance has brought the gaze of authority on us in a way that prevents us from criticizing and resisting power. Not only that, we succumb to the ideology of the rulers; how we live, what we eat, how we dress, how we worship, what we believe in, our tastes. We become zombies to be controlled - with neither artificial nor natural intelligence to challenge and question.

The author is former professor of Economics, IIM Calcutta