The Snowden Panopticon Theory
Imagine a regular prison. Built like a normal building: floors, corridors, and guards walking by the cells every once in a while, watching the prisoners as they pass by.
The problem: most of the time, the guards are not walking by. If they do, their coming is announced by all kinds of noises, footsteps, doors… The prisoner knows when to behave.
The solution: the Panopticon, a special way to construct prison buildings.
The building circular, a cage, glazed, a glass lantern — the prisoners in their cells, occupying the circumference — the officers in the centre. (Jeremy Bentham)
The prison cells form a large circle, their openings pointing inside, and in the middle of that circle stands a watch tower, with dark, tainted windows on every side. This architecture allows the guard, standing inside the tower, to look into whatever cell he desires, without having to move, while the prisoners cannot see what the guard is looking at.
But the most important aspect of the Panopticon is hidden: its psychological effect on the prisoners. It is logistically impossible for the guards to look at all the cells at once. The prisoners know that. However, the guard could look at every cell that he wanted to see, without the prisoners knowing is his cell is being watched.
This is the most important part of the Panopticon:
- it is impossible for the guards to look at all the cells at all times (for logistical reasons); but
- they could look at any single one at any given time.
This puts the prisoners in a constant state of fear of being watched. He does not know for sure if he’s being watched, but he knows that he could be watched.
Let’s apply this to the current events surrounding the leaks by Edwards Snowden: Every week, through the media, new information leaks out, every time showing another part of our lives being monitored by government agencies.
At first, only the big names like Facebook, Microsoft and Apple were said to share data with the NSA. People fled to alternative email providers and operating systems.
Then, new leaks showed that a huge part of the communication done through the Internet was being recorded. Some people just resigned to their fate, while others fled to open-source operating systems and encryption.
But even those hopes were crushed, when rumors came out saying that backdoors might have been installed on a hardware-level in processors.
The world is now aware of the NSA’s claimed capabilities. And especially as there are still many leaked documents left to be published, who knows if their perceived last bastion of privacy has not been already cracked 5 years ago, only to be leaked in a few months?
But what if this all is a lie? What is the NSA doesn’t actually have all the capabilities that the leaks are claiming? This might be true not, but in fact it does not matter. What matters is the psychological effect stemming from the possibility of total surveillance.
Let’s look at the implications of this of a constant state of uncertainty about surveillance.
Researchers have long known that there are serious psychological consequences to being surveilled, and you can be sure that it’s changing us, both as a society and as individuals. It’s throwing us off balance, heightening some characteristics and inhibiting others, and tailoring our behavior sometimes to show what the watcher wants to see, and other times to actively rebel against a condition that feels intrusive and disempowering. (source)
Or as the late philosopher Michael Foucault put it:
[…] surveillance also functions to create in everyone a feeling of always being watched, so that they become self-policing.
The aspects of changed behaviour under surveillance have already been covered in-depth elsewhere (example), we shall not focus on that here.
Some people say Snowden is a real whistleblower, some say he is a double agent, or even triple agent– the interesting part is, that also doesn’t matter. Even more: the entire Panoption Theory doesn’t actually have to be a planned conspiracy. It might just have turned out that way. Again, it doesn’t matter.
The conclusion is: no matter if Snowden is really a whistleblower, no matter if the NSA actually does have the capacities the leaks claim: the uncertainty about surveillance has been implanted in the public mind, and changes the way the public behaves. One might as well scratch the theory and call it the Snowden Panopticon effect.
Sources and further reading:
- On the psychological effects of a panopticon: http://the-artifice.com/panopticons-in-literature/
- On the psychological effects of surveillance in general: http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/surveillance-thinking-and-behavior
- Timeline of the Snowden leaks: https://www.eff.org/nsa-spying/timeline
- “Edward Snowden Scandal: Apple, Microsoft, Google, Yahoo and Facebook Reveal Data Requests”
- Website dedicated to collecting operating systems and software unaffected by NSA surveillance: https://prism-break.org/en/
- “New Details Show Broader NSA Surveillance Reach”
- “4 Email Encryption Services To NSA-Proof Your Email”
- “Intel chips could let US spies inside: expert”
- “99% of Snowden files remain unpublished – Guardian editor-in-chief”; “Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald has up to 20,000 unpublished Snowden documents”
- On claims of Snowden being a double agent: http://www.salon.com/2013/06/19/here_come_the_edward_snowden_truthers/