I never feel like somebody’s watching me.

by Eric on April 24, 2008

Speaking of public intellectuals, Siva Vaidhyanathan gave a talk here a couple days ago on privacy and surveillance, developing the ideas here. (For one thing, he now prefers “Cryptopticon” to “Nonopticon.”)

Siva thinks we should stop our Foucauldian worrying about Bentham’s Panopticon. He says he’s lived in the Panopticon, in New York, where there are lots of visible cameras everywhere (when I lived in one of the home counties, where it is said you can go all day without being out of CCTV range, I knew the feeling). Siva points out a lot of the cameras aren’t maintained, monitored, or even attached to anything; that’s not the point of them. They’re not there to watch you, they’re there to make you think that you’re being watched. Such reminders (your call may be monitored) are supposed to get you to become your own social superego.

On balance, Siva seems to think, this is pretty harmless. The point of the Panopticon is to get you to behave, to hide your real self, to conform. About which we can note two things: one, if you’ve been to London or New York, you see that in the real Panopticon people get their freak on just fine, thank you very much. And two, to the extent that it does work, the Panopticon actually reinforces privacy—getting you to hide your real self draws the boundaries around that real self. What we really need to worry about is unannounced, concealed surveillance: the NonCryptopticon.

The Cryptopticon doesn’t want you to think you’re being watched. It wants you to feel at home. It gives you a friendly user interface that puts you at your ease (shop in your underwear!) and rewards you for telling it what you really want: if you like this, maybe you’ll like that! (I do, you think. I do like that. <click>) All the while it’s silently and invisibly cataloguing your movements, packaging, bundling, and selling them off like so many subprime mortgages. Only they’re worth something.

By getting you to show your true preferences, the Cryptopicon erodes privacy in ways the Panopticon never could.

I think Siva needs to work a little more on applying these concepts to some government agencies, which in his analysis seem simultaneously Panoptic and Cryptopic, I gather. But he is working on it, because he’s writing a book (as previously on CT). You might also want to look at his “four privacy interfaces.”

{ 31 comments }

1

engels 04.24.08 at 3:01 pm

The Cryptopticon doesn’t want you to think you’re being watched. It wants you to feel at home. It gives you a friendly user interface that puts you at your ease…

You mean like a blog comments box?

2

engels 04.24.08 at 3:09 pm

Very interesting post, by the way.

3

ct 04.24.08 at 4:20 pm

Conflation of privacy and repression? That seems misguided. I would think privacy would be the limits I put on other people’s accessibility to my life, not the running to ground required by the specter of prying eyes. I am not on the road to being a mature self if I start relying on the Panopticon to force me into creating boundaries.

4

Colin Danby 04.24.08 at 5:39 pm

Not to be pedantic, but in MF’s view the panopticon aims not “to get you to … hide your real self” but to *alter* the self. As a practical matter this is one place where the doctrine seems oversold (the boundary-drawing you point to resists panopticism), but that’s at least the claim.

What’s useful, though, is that the Foucauldian stuff does not start from a notion of privacy that seems in need of a more thorough thinking-through.

5

The Modesto Kid 04.24.08 at 7:15 pm

Lazy readers will think Dr. Vaidhyanathan is worried about the Cryptonomicon.

6

Farren Hayden 04.24.08 at 7:26 pm

I did, at first,

(insert blush smiley)

7

Bob B 04.24.08 at 9:25 pm

This report about CCTV cameras in Britain appeared in national media about a year ago but caused little evident public expression of outrage or even concern:

“Britain has by far the largest number of cameras in the world with an estimated five million in public and private hands – about one for every 12 people.”
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/03/26/ncctv26.xml

Of course, the absence of observed protest can be construed in a least two ways: (a) most residents in Britain feel the more secure because of the high level of public surveillance, not least because CCTV cameras proved invaluable in 2005 for tracking the London bombers of 7/7 after the event; (b) most residents are too fearful to speak out. Somehow, (a) seems the more credible.

Besides, CCTV cameras are only a small part of the total surveillance story. Face recognition software is getting very sophisticated so surveillance can be automated to a degree. Mobile phone networks need to “know” where handsets are located within a 100 metres or so and this information has already been used in criminal trials. ISPs are obliged to record the origins and destinations of all emails. The subjects of Google searches are retained. It is said – with what truth I don’t know – that all telephone calls are searched for the occurrence of key words.

As for the latest development, just a few days ago:

“More than 500,000 people a year are to be questioned about their sex lives and salaries by Government inspectors, it has emerged.”
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2008/04/21/nspy221.xml

After all, as they say, those who have nothing to hide, have nothing to fear. I feel sure that Dr Pangloss, were he still with us, could assure us that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

8

Seth Finkelstein 04.24.08 at 10:52 pm

I think the overall point is that in Western countries, the threat of Big Brother watching you, and disappearing you for your principled political dissent, is really rather low (China or a Middle East dictatorship might be another matter). However, the amount of data Big Business can collect on you, and use in various problematic ways, does not draw anywhere near the attention (in part because there’s a huge business lobby to both promote this business data-collection, and cry persecution about any government action – see Google for both of these at work).

9

sara 04.25.08 at 12:23 am

They can’t pay enough people to watch everyone. You need an East German Soviet command economy for that.

10

Bob B 04.25.08 at 6:11 am

“They can’t pay enough people to watch everyone. You need an East German Soviet command economy for that.”

Admittedly, that is a constraint. One consequence of the collapse of the East German regime in 1989 and the reunification of Germany was that the Stasi files became available for scrutiny with many unhappy consequences.

It emerged that not only had the Stasi kept personal files on about a third of the population but there were instances where members of families had spied on other family members and reported their “observations” to the Stasi.

Another outcome was that after a delay we learned about Stasi spies operating in Britain:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/special_report/1999/09/99/britain_betrayed/451366.stm

11

virgil xenophon 04.25.08 at 8:11 am

Wal-Mart has a face recognition program more accurate than anything the Feds have, I am told by people who supposedly know about such things–and faster too. Funny how people who frequent Starbucks, Radio-shack, Kroger’s, etc., willingly provide detailed personal data for a couple of bucks savings on discount cards, but fear what the Govt. “knows.” As is often mentioned by people here and elsewhere, Google is the prime example of a, shall we say, “less than open” private corp- oration, answerable to almost no one, run by people known to have a highly ideological bent that amasses un-godly amounts of information on peoples’ private lives–yet the public seems not to care–as opposed to their fear of Govt. agencies who gather far less data under far more restricted circumstances; and who are at least nominally answerable (if only tangentially) to both the public at large and the citizen on an individual basis. Lots of work for the head-shrinkers in trying to figure out THAT paradox. Anybody in the relevant professions out there what can “sssplaain” the mental processes at work here?

12

Dave 04.25.08 at 9:15 am

I think one could have an interesting debate about how many people are really ‘blamelessly’ entitled to privacy. Without, I stress, advocating any particular position, one could nonetheless raise issues such as violence in the home, tax evasion, or sexual abuse, as reasons why more, rather than less, about what the ‘average’ person is doing ought to be known. The greatest problem, of course, is who ‘ought to know’, and what is done with information after it is gathered, the quis custodiet issue.

One underlying issue is whether you start from the, emotionally-satisfying but untrue, proposition that ‘individuals’ have inherent ‘natural’ rights to things like variously defined ‘privacy’; or the, more accurate but troubling, concept that we’d all, in fact, be grubbing for roots outside a cave if it weren’t for the real advantages conferred by living in society, and that we are, inherently, rather complex social animals, deeply implicated in all aspects of interaction around us, not ‘rights-bearing individuals’.

13

Roy Belmont 04.25.08 at 9:48 am

#8:
At this particular historical moment. But given the amazingly swift rate of the US and UK plunge into sekurity alert status, fuelled by untruth and unscrupulous manipulation, it’s not unthinkable these technologies could end up in the hands of those you’ll wish they hadn’t.
#9:
That model’s 50 years old. Home computing means the net puts many millions of possible watchers in front of the screen all day and all night. Distributed tasking. A climate of insane fear and constant suspicion means a hefty chunk of those possible watchers are ready and willing – as volunteers.
Imagine the comments section of Little Green Footballs sicced on some manufactured target 24/7. How hard would that be to set up? How hard to find those volunteers?
Route the feed from the CCTV’s into some software, hook up the wingnuts, and viola!
Wolfen covered some of this ground back in the early 80′s, though it’s live feeds were into privatized security networks. Sort of like say Blackwater or something.
What it may or may not lack at this point is motivation on the part of anyone capable of organizing it. But the tactical aspects are certainly all in place.
Watching, not “everyone”, but enemies.
So, don’t be an enemy.
But it’s incumbent on free men to be the enemies of tyranny.
I guess we could always pretend it’s not tyranny but the harsh necessities of self-defense. That’s been pretty successful for most of the totalitarian states I’ve heard of. The authorities explain, patiently and wisely, that no other way exists to protect the nation, contrasting the safety and security of the benign Panopticon to the horror of living in a cave, surrounded by danger, with an unstable food supply and no health care.

14

JohnTh 04.25.08 at 11:26 am

Re. post #9 – I’m think you might be too sanguine. I have some friends at Google, and one very interesting project that they are working on is adding a substantial amount of artificial intelligence to ‘web spiders’, improving their ability to go through pages (and even pictures and movies) to identify information of interest (for advertising).

With sufficiently advanced artificial agents of this type to filter out the junk it would become reasonably practical to have a few hundred million AIs monitor for pre-defined ‘deviant’ behaviour over a vast number of devices, including CCTV, and pass on relevent information to a much smaller number of human monitors for potential action.

15

Stuart 04.25.08 at 11:36 am

Is there really any significant amount of (legal) things that people would do in public, but won’t do in public if they might be recorded doing it? And if so isn’t the proliferation of mobile phones with photo/video capability more of a threat than CCTVs – especially the privately owned ones that make up the vast majority of them.

If I was going to be worried about private entities invading my privacy, I would be concerned about google, microsoft, amazon, supermarkets, and the like. The local newsagents or kebab shop having some blurred images of me passing by, not so much.

16

Randolph Fritz 04.25.08 at 12:58 pm

Well, you know, the gummint agencies buy data from commercial surveillance, just like everyone else it seems.

But, yes, the camera surveillance non-system is more like Brazil than 1984. Most of the time it doesn’t do much…except when it does.

17

Bob B 04.25.08 at 2:05 pm

@14: “Is there really any significant amount of (legal) things that people would do in public, but won’t do in public if they might be recorded doing it?”

This is what worries me:

The Watergate break-in on 17 June 1972 was an enterprising endeavour by the Republicans to gather political intelligence about the Democrats in the run-up to the US presidential election that year. Of course, the break-in amounted to burglary and was therefore illegal. How much better would it be if political intelligence could be gathered by surreptitious but lawful means – such as phone tapping one’s political opponents ostensibly as part of wider surveillance to track and prevent child pornography or terrorism, something which most citizens would heartily approve of?

In Britain, we have been near this territory before.

In the 1960s, Britain’s PM at the time, Harold Wilson, established a convention, termed the Wilson Doctrine, by which the security services are barred from tapping the fixedline phones of MPs. All subsequent PMs have reaffirmed this convention:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/4614122.stm

The public rationale was and is that MPs are to be trusted but there were and are good pragmatic reasons for the convention, namely that competitive phone tapping to gather political intelligence could otherwise get out of hand. Anyone here who regards that as absurd might reflect on this recent criminal case concerning the freedom of the press to tap Royal telephones:

“The royal editor of the News of the World [a tabloid UK Sunday newspaper] has been jailed for four months for plotting to intercept voicemail messages left for royal aides.”
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/6301243.stm

18

Picador 04.25.08 at 2:07 pm

Of course, the absence of observed protest can be construed in a least two ways: (a) most residents in Britain feel the more secure because of the high level of public surveillance, not least because CCTV cameras proved invaluable in 2005 for tracking the London bombers of 7/7 after the event; (b) most residents are too fearful to speak out. Somehow, (a) seems the more credible.

Frighteningly, you’re probably right. Of course, people should spend a little more time thinking about the relative effectiveness of CCTV in tracking down the bombers versus its complete ineffectiveness in providing evidence for the de Menezes hearings a few weeks later. When the state controls the means of surveillance, you can be sure it will only be used against perceived enemies of the state (or enemies of state officials), never to hold the state accountable to its citizens.

19

Bloix 04.25.08 at 2:33 pm

#16 – oh, I don’t know. How about walk through the door of a gay bar?

20

Bob B 04.25.08 at 4:18 pm

#18: “oh, I don’t know. How about walk through the door of a gay bar?”

Personally, I hardly ever visit bars, whether gay or not, and besides we have reached the stage where members of the Cabinet and MPs are openly gay. Try this: “[Matthew Parris] famously told interviewer Jeremy Paxman that there were two gay members of the then current Labour Cabinet, one being Peter Mandelson. He has stated that there are between thirty and sixty unannounced gay members of the UK parliament. In July 2006, in a list compiled by the Independent on Sunday, Parris was voted the 73rd most influential gay man in the United Kingdom.”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matthew_Parris

For years, I’ve worked on the routine assumption that anyone with any kind of profile for political activism was likely to have their phone tapped and their email read. Paranoia? Not really.

One Saturday morning in January 2005 my phone rang at 9am. The guy on the phone asked why hadn’t I sent him the computer memory that he had bought from me on eBay for £109. The fact was that I’d not been on eBay at all, let alone to sell computer memory there. But someone had and had left my name and phone number as the vendor contact details. Fortunately, the money had been paid into a PayPal account and I don’t have a PayPal account of any kind.

The Police have regularly put out messages warning of identity theft.

21

richard 04.25.08 at 4:47 pm

That model’s 50 years old. Home computing means the net puts many millions of possible watchers in front of the screen all day and all night. Distributed tasking. A climate of insane fear and constant suspicion means a hefty chunk of those possible watchers are ready and willing – as volunteers.

The problem with this model is reliability of reporting – if you want real data and not just sacrificial fuel for your paranoid state furnaces. Cf. Stalin’s purges. Stanley Milgram’s experiment seems directly relevant here.

AI has the potential for greater consistency and reliability, and might be the real answer to the problem of too much data, but often actions can only be understood within the context of complex narratives, so I’m guessing (naively) that it would be very hard to implement in order to anticipate criminal/terrorist acts. On the other hand, if you can monitor the information a person is exposed to, track what catches their interest, and compile their social circle… you might well have a scary and wonderful data-net to explain what that blurry figure (with a known cellphone number) is doing on the CCTV feed.

We live on a very interesting cusp, right now: flashmobs are possible and can act suddenly and effectively, ahead of security forces. I wonder how long that will be true, and how far away we are from the instigators of flashmobs already being the targets of special surveillance before they even plan their first public acts.

Phonecams? Remember that meme a few years back, “short black dress… round of drinks… pictured on the internet with no knickers: priceless!” I don’t know quite what Foucault would have made of it, but it struck me as a remarkable bit of discipline.

22

Roy Belmont 04.25.08 at 11:44 pm

#21-
AI would be the first choice for the prelim, for the wide scrape and gather. But subtle social intricacies are still best programmed into human brains. Reliable reporting from the blank slate of the wide-open Panoptic, yeah I agree. Tracking and reporting already id’d subjects is another barrel of fish. A combination of the two formats would be ideal. W/ an applet to flag superiors when subj. appears to be doing something of interest.
The same systemic complexities that have given us dehumanized and sterile but massively “efficient” factory farms, and the humanly compact and concentrated mutations of things like call centers can be brought to bear on the details.
The little dweeb staring at the screen won’t need much to get motivated, some traumatic video carnage as evidence, faith in the chain of command and its values – and it won’t hurt to have the outside world becoming more chaotic and threatening hourly, to give those little dweebs a reassuring sense of belonging to the elect. Earning their safety and security by doing what they do best. Watching TV. Reality TV.

23

Cranky Observer 04.26.08 at 1:06 am

> most residents in Britain feel the more
> secure because of the high level of public
> surveillance, not least because CCTV cameras
> proved invaluable in 2005 for tracking the London
> bombers of 7/7 after the event;

As I suspect Bruce Schneier could point out much more eloquently than I: that is nothing more that pure security theater since the cameras **didn’t prevent the damage from occuring**. Perhaps – perhaps – they helped track down the perps and prevent a repetition. But they had zero proactive effect so the privacy was given up for no return.

Cranky

24

Bob B 04.26.08 at 9:12 am

“that is nothing more that pure security theater since the cameras didn’t prevent the damage from occuring”

True but then the numbers in prison have just reached a new record high and that hasn’t stopped crime either:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7367438.stm

By whatever means of surveillance or pre-emption, “Scotland Yard anti-terror chief, Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick, told MPs – who are examining the Government’s controversial plans to extend the pre-charge detention limit to 42 days – that 15 terror plots have been foiled by police since the July 7 attacks.”
http://ukpress.google.com/article/ALeqM5i451r9hQLu_vTmIzXOMSRwcBzuqw

Like it or not, the curious fact is that on the evidence we British just don’t seem to care how many public CCTV cameras there are. And we don’t seem to care either that we keep more in prison per head of population than any other country in western Europe.

25

richard 04.26.08 at 5:36 pm

24: it’s all part of our special relationship with the USA

26

Bob B 04.26.08 at 7:09 pm

@25

The trouble is not enough folks in government seem to have read this seminal paper by Gary Becker: Crime and Punishment – An Economic Approach (JPE 1968):
http://www.ww.uni-magdeburg.de/bizecon/material/becker.1968.pdf

By the official UK figures, it is hugely expensive keeping someone in prison:
http://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/cm200607/cmhansrd/cm070109/text/70109w0018.htm

27

Bob B 04.26.08 at 7:57 pm

Perhaps I posted too soon.

This review of prisons by Lord Carter, published last December, seems to be the latest thinking on establishing a sustainable policy:
http://www.justice.gov.uk/docs/securing-the-future.pdf

Quote from the executive summary:

“Since June 1995 the prison population in England and Wales has increased by 60%, or more than 30,000, to reach the record levels of population seen today. As a result of this, England and Wales has the highest prison population per capita in Western Europe. . .

“The prison system has performed well in improving the safety and decency in prison as well as the management of offenders. However, each prisoner costs the taxpayer, on average, £37,500 per year. This appears to be expensive in contrast to other jurisdictions such as Australia, New Zealand and the US, although direct cost comparisons are difficult to make.”

28

Naadir Jeewa 04.27.08 at 4:41 am

> most residents in Britain feel the more
> secure because of the high level of public
> surveillance, not least because CCTV cameras
> proved invaluable in 2005 for tracking the London
> bombers of 7/7 after the event;

Umm…no. We’re too busy fighting ID cards and increases in detention to keep up with the whole of the gov.uk’s security state’s ambitions.

29

Bob B 04.27.08 at 7:49 am

For the present in Britain, I think most of us are currently on full alert because of the official announcements in every broadcast news bulletin about not to panic at the prospect of an impending fuel shortage due to the strike-bound oil refinery in Scotland. Never underestimate the kamikaze tendencies of British trade unions.

Btw a far greater threat to personal privacy than ID cards is the NHS national database of personal medical records currently under development at a projected cost of UKP 12 billions.

“Half of all GPs will consider refusing to put patient records automatically on to a new national database in defiance of the government, a survey finds. The Guardian newspaper poll of 1,026 GPs and hospital doctors found many doubted the security of the new system. Four out of five thought the confidentiality of their patients’ records would be at risk.”
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/6167924.stm

It happens that my medical records don’t include embarrassing details about treatments for STDs, HIV or mental health issues but that is not true for all. With wide access to personal medical records, extending to local government officials, some (? many) fellow citizens will be put at risk of personal blackmail or workplace bullying and I wonder how employers or insurance companies and other financial institutions will react to a situation where they know that for a modest fee some investigator would be able to dig out and provide private personal information from the national database? Remember, with all this modernisation going on, even the Royals are vulnerable to having their phones tapped. The Royals were in a position to discover that and do something about it. How many of the rest of us are?

30

Katherine 04.27.08 at 8:32 am

“And we don’t seem to care either that we keep more in prison per head of population than any other country in western Europe.”

I think it is more that we don’t know. The tabloid rhetoric for years has been that we are soft on crime. Any time there is a headline about a prison sentence it’s about how this or that scrote has got off with just years in prison. I think most people would be genuinely shocked that we have such a high proportion of people in prison.

31

Bob B 04.27.08 at 11:24 am

“I think most people would be genuinely shocked that we have such a high proportion of people in prison.”

I can only post that I’m totally amazed that this fact isn’t widely recognised – if it isn’t. The fact has been confirmed often enough on the BBC website. If more is needed, the link to the Carter prison review in #27 above here provides official confirmation.

FWIW my impression is that Blair got a notion that more and longer prison sentences would help New Labour to beat the Tories, just as he thought that getting involved in a few high-profile wars going would enable NL to capture a patriotic factor and demonstrate that a Labour government could run a war as well as the Tories.

I take it that this is what the Blairites mean when they go on about the need for strong leadership. Personally, I think that Samuel Johnson had an astute intuition when he said: Patriotism is last refuge of the scoundrel. As for the strong leadership stuff, I’m always reminded of something Lord Beaverbrook said of Lloyd George that he “did not seem to care which way he travelled providing he was in the driving seat.”

Whatever else, don’t panic. As the man with a Scots accent in BBC news bulletins keeps saying: There is no fuel shortage, it’s just that people are buying too much. Now we know.

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