Deconstructing the panopticon

By Andreas Haggman:

Anonymous graffiti on the wall of the British Museum, London
Anonymous graffiti on the wall of the British Museum, London

Surveillance is always a contentious issue. Whether in the physical realm (CCTV cameras) or digital realm (phone tapping, electronic snooping), proponents and opponents trade blows over arguments of necessity and efficacy versus invasion of privacy and erosion of liberty. While there are no clear-cut answers as to the ethical and practical utility of public surveillance, it is obvious that the issue sparks passionate debate.

The Snowden leaks have made evident the breadth and depth of digital surveillance techniques available to modern intelligence agencies. The gist of what has been revealed so far is that every electronic device is liable to surveillance intrusion, whether this be at a metadata or content level. The scope of this is somewhat frightening and quite difficult to come to terms with. CCTV cameras have a visible presence which, perhaps, contributes to some sense of security. Digital surveillance techniques, by contrast, are invisible which – it can be contended – makes it more difficult to garner a sense of security from them. In addition, we are treated to the positive effects of CCTV on numerous television programmes (such as Crimewatch) which reinforce their contribution to public security. There is no digital equivalent of this, partly due to classified information and partly because one can’t see electronic signals, so our only options are either media speculation or official reports – neither of which is an overly attractive alternative for reliability.

The surveillance programmes which have come under closest scrutiny are the NSA’s PRISM and GCHQ’s Tempora. Both of these take advantage the fact that the US (primarily) controls the physical backbone of the Internet. In having access to the hardware through which the majority of the world’s Internet traffic passes, the NSA and GCHQ have been able to intercept vast quantities of data using techniques such as tapping fibre optic cables and setting up fake servers. As an example, the Quantum programme, which makes use of the latter technique, intercepts targets’ requests for a webpage and sends a cached version of the page back infected with malware which installs a surveillance programme on the target’s computer (a useful explanation with leaked diagrams can be found on The Intercept).

These revelations have led to accusations of Big Brother states and invocations of Jeremy Bentham’s old construct of the panopticon. Humans instinctively revert to physical metaphors as they are easier to understand and relate to than digital concepts. Often used in relation to incarceration facilities, a panopticon is a building with a focal vantage point from which every cell – arranged around the internal perimeter – can be viewed. While the imagery conjured is certainly powerful, there are also two critical flaws which undermine the applicability of this picture to reality: mutual visibility and constraint.

Firstly, in the traditional panopticon, jail guards stationed in the central tower can view prisoners through their transparent cell door (whether this be made of iron bars or Perspex). Likewise, prisoners can see the guards and so they know when they are being watched. The watchers and the watched therefore have mutual visibility of each other. In the digital realm of Quantum Insert, the prisoner does not know they are being watched because the cell door is not transparent. The door can instead be likened to a screen on which the guards in the central tower project an image. To the prisoner, the image shows the guards having their backs turned, when in reality they are intently watching that particular cell. The lack of mutual visibility is therefore an important difference between the panopticon construct and digital surveillance.

Secondly, a traditional panopticon is a jail in which prisoners are trapped by physical constraints. There are actual impediments like walls which stop the prisoner from moving around within the panopticon to avoid the guards’ gaze and stop them from leaving the panopticon altogether. In the digital world, these physical constraints are not present. Users are free to walk away from or switch off their computers, thus avoiding surveillance. It can be argued that in an increasingly interconnected world, going completely offline is becoming increasingly difficult and it therefore becomes more difficult to avoid surveillance. Whilst this is certainly true, more difficult does not equal impossible. Using a computer, a smartphone, a mobile phone or even a telephone is a choice. Granted, choosing to not do so is a significant disadvantage in the modern world, but it is still a choice over which we ultimately have control. In the panopticon, prisoners do not have a choice and they do not have control. To say that the digital surveillance exercised by intelligence agencies resembles a panoptic state is therefore an illogical attempt at imposing a physical concept on a digital world.

Having deconstructed the panopticon, the problem becomes re-imagining a construct which more accurately reflects the current state of affairs. The great problem for political philosophy is that it has yet to incorporate the technological advancements of the 21st century. The advent of video recording was embraced by thinkers and has been expediently conveyed in works such as Orwell’s 1984 or the film The Truman Show. However, the difficulty of constructing an image from something we cannot see (digital signals) hinders the digital surveillance debate from metamorphosing into an easily relatable concept.

The contentiousness of surveillance will continue to provoke fierce debate. It is clear that new technologies endow authorities with unparalleled tools for monitoring activity in the digital realm. In describing this state of affairs we must be careful, however, of invoking imagery, concepts and constructs offered by our predecessors. Ideas are always conceived in context, so what was applicable in the past does not necessarily translate to the present. Therefore, while we do not live in a Bentham’s panopticon, the time is certainly ripe for the modern generation to critically reflect on the technologies they live with.


Andreas Haggman is a MA student in Intelligence and International Security at King’s College London. His academic focus is on cyber security, particularly the development of weaponised code and organisational responses to cyber security issues.

4 thoughts on “Deconstructing the panopticon”

  1. Foucault, in his study of the birth of the prison (/Discipline & Punish/, trans. Alan Sheridan, NY: Vintage Books, 1995) makes clear that prisoners in a panopticon /cannot/ see their jailers – or rather, they are not supposed to know when they are or are not being watched (see quotation below). He also sees the cell walls of the panopticon less in terms of physical constraint and more in terms of an individualising mechanism ensuring that people are separated, unable to form a mass or crowd, in a way that makes them more open to what he terms ‘disciplinary power’. As a result, panoptical structures do not have to be prisons, but can be voluntarily entered spaces (Foucault gives the example of the old British Museum reading room: Given these two observations, I wonder whether the panopticon is not in fact a rather apt metaphor for internet surveillance.

    Foucault, Discipline and Punish, pp. 201-202:

    …it is at once too much and too little that the prisoner should be constantly observed by an inspector: too little, for what matters is that he knows himself to be observed; too much, because he has no need in fact of being so. In view of this, Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so. In order to make the presence or absence of the inspector unverifiable, so that the prisoners, in their cells, cannot even see a shadow, Bentham envisaged not only Venetian blinds on the windows of the central observation hall, but, on the inside, partitions that intersected the hall at right angles and, in order to pass from one quarter to the other, not doors but zig-zag openings; for the slightest noise, a gleam of light, a brightness in a half-opened door would betray the presence of the guardian. The Panopticon is a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad: in the periph­eric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen.

  2. I agree with Allister here. Your portrait of the panopticon is, if not flawed, imprecise and needs to take into account more of the nuances that make it an interesting concept in surveillance studies.

    Furthermore, your conceptualization of surveillance seems limited. It would benefit from being widened from focusing exclusively on public “technologies” of surveillance such as surveillance to the “govermentalization” of surveillance through e.g. “see something, say something” campaigns of public awareness. I believe this provides a better platform for deconstructing the panopticon as the best concept for investigating postmodern surveillance. Rather than the observation of the few by the many (the panopticon), maybe we are moving towards a synopticon (the observation of the few by the many) or something completely different more like “the constant observation of everybody by everybody”.

    1. *precision: Panopticon is, of course, the observation of the many by the few. I apologize for the typo

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