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The Electronic Panopticon

In 1791 the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham envisioned a “panopticon,” a domelike prison where guards could observe all the inmates at all times from within a central observation tower. Bentham never managed to convince the Crown to build his prison, but its principles were embraced across the Atlantic, in Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary. Built in 1829, this radical building became a global sensation-the most influential prison ever built, according to Max Page, an architectural historian at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

In the Philadelphia panopticon, prisoners lived in solitary confinement in seven cellblocks that radiated like the spokes of a wheel from an observation room. The inmates could see neither the guards watching them nor the other prisoners around them; their only window was a skylight. Living in isolation under the scrutiny of invisible authorities, inmates were supposed to reflect on their sins and become penitent: Eastern State was the world’s first “penitentiary.”

After Eastern State was unveiled, governments around the world built more than 300 panopticon prisons. But they gradually fell out of use, partly because neither wardens nor inmates could bear playing their roles. According to Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas’s study of panopticons, prisoners found ways to avoid surveillance; guards, disheartened by the lack of interaction, left the center. Ultimately, inmates and guards found themselves continuously watching each other, transforming the prison, in Koolhaas’s phrase, into “a transparent space” where “no action or inaction remains unnoticed.”

Similarly, omnipresent electronic surveillance leads to what Carl Botan, a researcher at Purdue University’s Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security, calls panoptic effects-unexpected reactions that counter the purpose of monitoring. According to the American Management Association, nearly 80 percent of major U.S. companies electronically monitor their employees. Common observational methods include logging telephone calls and e-mail to determine which employees are wasting time and periodically recording what is on workers’ computer screens to inhibit porn perusing. Such innovations, Botan says, do help employers encourage efficiency and avoid “hostile environment” litigation. But there are other, unintended results. “Employees who know everything is being logged,” he says, “are less willing to exchange information with other employees-the horizontal communication that is the problem-solving communication in the workplace. Not wanting to be recorded calling home to monitor how a sick kid is doing, they’ll take a sick day instead.” If people aren’t comfortable with a surveillance regime, Botan argues, they subvert it, exacerbating the problem surveillance was supposed to ameliorate.

Panoptic effects take hold in the larger society as surveillance spreads, says Jeffrey Smith, a lawyer at Arnold and Porter in Washington, DC, who was general counsel to the Central Intelligence Agency. “The notion of what is private and what the limits of privacy are clearly changes to reflect technology,” he says. “If what was once thought of as public data can be used to construct what might be an intrusively detailed picture of your life, people will push back. The courts will visit this issue. There will be legislation too.”

Much as last year’s accounting scandals led Congress to push for corporate reforms, legislatures could demand that organizations that maintain databases of personal information keep detailed publicly available records of their use. But that will not happen without a shift in public opinion. “A lot of law turns on reasonable expectation of privacy,’” says Paul Schwartz, a privacy law specialist at Brooklyn Law School. “But as technology becomes cheaper and surveillance spreads everywhere, the danger is that the reasonable expectation of privacy will change.” If Americans grow accustomed to a lack of privacy, in other words, they will get exactly what they expect.

“This technology could do a lot of good and a lot of harm,” says Shari Pfleeger, a computer scientist and senior researcher at the RAND think tank in Washington, DC. “But to get the balance right, it needs to be actively talked about.” More often than is commonly realized, such public discussion-nudged along by legal action and ongoing public-awareness campaigns-has transformed prevailing notions of acceptable behavior. Examples include the dramatic turnabouts over the past two decades in attitudes toward smoking and drunk driving, both of which were driven in part by grass-roots activism. The rapidity of the advances in surveillance technology, unfortunately, means that society has much less time to confront the trade-offs between security and privacy. The moment for debate and conversation is now, while the technology is still in its adolescence.

Watching What You Do
TECHNOLOGY
DESCRIPTION SELECTED PROVIDERS
AT HOME
“Nanny cams” Small, easily hidden wireless digital video cameras for monitoring
children and pets.
Nanny Check , Plainview, NY
Know Your Nanny , North Brunswick, NJ
Infrared
surveillance
Technology that alerts police to such suspicious thermal activity inside houses as the heat from marijuana-growing equipment. Monroe Infrared Technology , Kennebunk, ME
Sierra Pacific , Las Vegas, NV
ON THE ROAD
Traffic cameras Web cameras mounted at high-traffic points; specialized cameras
that read plate numbers for law enforcement.
Axis Communications , Lund, Sweden
Computer Recognition Systems , Cambridge, MA
Automobile transponders Electronic toll deduction when users pass through tollgates; supported by laser vehicle measurement and axle number detection. Mark IV Industries , Slvesborg, Sweden
SAMSys Technologies , Richmond Hill, Ontario
Cell phones Technology that reports a cell phone user’s precise location to authorities during 911 calls. Mandatory for all U.S. wireless carriers and cell phone manufacturers by 2006
AT WORK
Internet and e-mail monitoring Text and data filters that ensure compliance with privacy and harassment laws and corporate confidentiality requirements. Tumbleweed Communications , Redwood City, CA
Clearswift, Theale, UK
Keystroke logging, file usage review Systems that record everything typed into a computer, including e-mail, instant messages, and Web addresses. Amecisco , San Francisco, CA
NetHunter Group , Tallinn, Estonia
AT SCHOOL
Web filtering Software that prevents students from reaching inappropriate Web content. N2H2 , Seattle, WA
iTech , Racine, WI
Locator wristbands Bracelets that combine GPS and digital cell-phone signals to locate wearer within 30 meters. Wherify Wireless , Redwood Shores, CA
Peace of Mind at Light Speed , Westport, CT
AT THE STORE
Smart cards Microchips embedded in plastic cards that carry e-cash, along with driver’s license, age and address information, and medical records. Gemplus , Luxembourg
Oberthur Card Systems , Paris, France
Supermarket discount cards Cards-with embedded chips or standard magnetic stripe-that earn member discounts and track shopping habits. Catalina Marketing , St. Petersburg, FL
SchlumbergerSema , New York, NY

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