Redefining Privacy in the Panopticon

Welcome to the Panopticon. Originally a concept created by a philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, in 1785 the Panopticon is a prison where every corner of the designated space is covered by a camera so prisoners feel that they are being watched all of the time and thus are more likely to behave. In the UK the principal was used to build Milbank Prison on the bank of the Thames where now sits Tate Britain – a building whose function is to provide a space for us to look at reflections of ourselves, an art gallery.

The pleasing synergy of the first UK panopticon becoming an artopticon merits further examination as we become more obsessed with the voyeuristic tendency to watch each other as a form of entertainment and march headlong into turning every inch of this benighted isle into a prison.

Our problem is that the dividing line between what we consider private and public is getting increasingly fuzzy, we merrily publish great swathes of detail about our lives on blogs like this one (or blogger or Live Journal) and increasingly on social networking sites (Facebook and MySpace).

Here on the public blogosphere I publish only the minimum of detail about my private life sufficient, I hope, only to establish a presence and dialogue between the persona I present here and you my reader. It is in fact insufficient data for some Google users to realise that I am not Jamie Thom the famous photographer judging by the stats.

On Facebook there is much more information about me and my daily life but I feel secure publishing it there because it can be viewed only by people I know. Of course any developer of an application I have added into the account can also glean a good deal of information about me.

The tools for sharing information with each other deliberately are increasing as the computers we carry around with us (or “phones” as they are sometimes erroneously called) become more and more capable of capturing the world around us and storing it, complete with geo-location. A full life log isn’t far away and even if you don’t sign up for it you’ve got no chance of avoiding appearing in someone else’s.

Much more information about me can be inferred by analysing the content or the links pages of this site, is 78% sure that I am male for example and trust me when I say from actual technical knowledge that it is absolutely staggering what can be worked out from Bayesian inference on any suitably sized data set – it’s not just spam you can spot with SpamAssassin. Now expand in your mind if you will that principle to all of my email and all of the data on Facebook or elsewhere that I didn’t intend to leave it and it is possible that a cleverly written program could tell me more about my life than I could.

As our business is increasingly conducted online we leave trails of metadata in our wakes all available to hoover up and use to provide better and more exciting services or products and we are increasingly willing to make this trade – privacy for products.

As I’ve already alluded, blogs and social networks are places where we deliberately leave this trail of information but of course the wealth of data we scatter around is much bigger – where you use your bank card, what you buy at the supermarket or where you travel are all in a database somewhere and you will probably have accepted something in the terms and conditions for using any such service (banking, store loyalty card, terms of carriage for an airline) that allow the data to be shared with “selected third parties”.

Meanwhile the state’s ability to collect information about us is rapidly increasing (Electronic surveillance and collection of personal data are “pervasive” in British society and threaten to undermine democracy, peers have warned. – BBC ) and the whole point of the Identity Card system is not, as it is being touted, to give you an easy convenient way of proving you are who you say you are when you want to open a bank account but to create a database of databases, linking together all of the government’s datasources about you. It’s stated purpose is “to overcome current barriers to information sharing within the public sector” (Source: No2ID).

Combine that with the pervasive CCTV culture we already have and some minor improvements in the quality of face recognition technology which is itself simply an off-shoot of well established pattern recognition, and suddenly your whole life is online, indexed and searchable. Were I to wish to implement this here’s how I’d do it:

  • Create a Facebook application that allows you to modify pictures uploaded – adding funny ears and stuff or something.
  • Gather the portions of pictures tagged by users as being a person on the back of the app.
  • Use this as the source data for pattern recognition against my frame by frame CCTV data.

The only barrier is computational and Moore’s law will take care of that in a year or two. The hardest part – recognising faces – is actually being done for you by humans.

The state is galloping down this path because they have seen the future writ large: Information is power. Information has always been the fundamental source of power over society, gathering money is just a consequence of the application of the information you know, and the state is behind in the market: your bank, mobile phone provider and local supermarket between them know more about you than the state does.

So desperate is the situation for the state that they are having to add clauses to other acts to ease the restrictions their own legislation places on them in order to play catch up. Clause 152 of the Coroners and Justice Bill would allow ministers to make ‘Information Sharing Orders’, that can alter any Act of Parliament and cancel all rules of confidentiality in order to use information obtained for one purpose to be used for another. (Source: No2ID again).

The state is only playing catch up on a situation that we have created for ourselves, the panopticon is here in that everything you do online is already watched and peeking at the future suggests that the next generation will grow up with no concept of what privacy is at all when their first steps as a baby are online and they’ll have been chronicling their own exploits on MySpace from the age of three, complete with a life log of photos and videos.

And Nothing of Value was Lost

So what’s the big deal? If our kids wont care about their privacy why should we? After all if we have nothing to hide we have nothing to fear, right?


You honestly don’t mind if I look through your wallet at your receipts and see what you’ve bought or have a glance over your bank account transactions? I see you went for a three-for-one on KY Jelly, a vibrator and some condoms at Boots last week! That’s right, plenty of things you spend your money on are private, not illegal, but private.

The march of technology is unstoppable, global recessions not withstanding, so the real question is how best we manage the data explosion that is happening around us. We can not stop it but it is possible to at least try and ensure that what we do with that information is truly beneficial for society. That the panopticon is here is hardly in doubt, whether it turns into a prison of not is still up for grabs.

Further Reading:

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