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See Inside September 2008

Big Brother Sees All in the Technological Fishbowl

How much do technologies that affect privacy also influence freedom?

Once upon a time an ethicist had a brilliant idea for a prison. Today we all live in it.

Starting in 1785, English philosopher Jeremy Bentham spent decades (and much of his own fortune) advocating for the construction of a facility he called the Panopticon—the “all-seeing place.” Inside its walls, convicted prisoners would be exposed to perpetual view from a central tower by an unseen jailer, who could supervise their behavior, health and menial labor. Bentham insisted that the Panopticon would be safer and more affordable than other prisons—but not because the prisoners were always being watched. Rather the true genius of the idea lay in what made it, in his words, “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind.” Because the prisoners would not be able to see whether a guard was in the Panopticon’s tower, it could often be unmanned and they would never know. Out of fear and uncertainty, the prisoners would in effect stand watch over themselves.

The British government never approved final construction of a Panopticon, despite Bentham’s fervent lobbying (at one point he promised to serve as the guard at no wages). Instead, ironically, over recent decades London itself has become one of the most intensively monitored metropolises in the world, with more than 10,000 public security cameras and a far greater number of private ones installed by landlords, shopkeepers and homeowners.

Surveillance is everywhere. A 1998 survey counted almost 2,400 public and private cameras in Manhattan, and that number has surely skyrocketed since then as the cost of video has fallen. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has distributed hundreds of millions of dollars to cities in grants for cameras to fight terrorism. The available evidence that all this monitoring actually improves security, at least against street crime, is at best thin, however.

Video surveillance is only the tip of the iceberg. As the articles in this special issue describe, the rise of assorted technologies has multiplied manyfold the opportunities for us to share data about ourselves—or for others to spy on us.

In his book The Transparent Society, David Brin argues that the modern conception of privacy is historically transient and made obsolete by new technology; rather than trying futilely to keep secrets, he thinks we should concentrate on preventing abuses of them by insisting that everyone, including governments, be an equally open book. How well that strategy can work in practice is debatable. But there is no question that society is, however unwarily, embracing much of the new openness. Millions now post their lives on Facebook and MySpace for all to see. Companies successfully entreat customers to divulge personal information in return for services. In 1948 George Orwell portrayed an all-knowing Big Brother as a totalitarian nightmare. Sixty years later Big Brother is reality TV entertainment.

Those developments are not altogether bad. What should concern us most is not whether the changing state of privacy is making us more or less safe or happy. It is whether, as Bentham predicted, it subjects us to a new “power of mind over mind.” Does uncertainty about whether someone is observing us, exploiting our secrets or even stealing our identity cause us to preemptively sacrifice our freedom to be and act as we would wish? When privacy dis­appears, do we first respond by hiding from ourselves?

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