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
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.”