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We live in the surveillance society

Perhaps we do not realize that fact, or we prefer not to think about it, however, the omnipresent surveillance has already become an inseparable element of our life. Almost every activity that we perform is monitored and registered. It is possible owing to thousands of databases, CCTV cameras, mobile phones and digital traces left on the Internet. Modern technologies intertwine with the various manifestations of "non-technological" surveillance. Step by step, we are being familiarized with more tools designed to control our lives. Only too often we accept them as a civilizational necessity which we cannot escape.

Perhaps we do not realize that fact, or we prefer not to think about it, however, the omnipresent surveillance has already become an inseparable element of our life. Almost every activity that we perform is monitored and registered. It is possible owing to thousands of databases, CCTV cameras, mobile phones and digital traces left on the Internet. Modern technologies intertwine with the various manifestations of "non-technological" surveillance. Step by step, we are being familiarized with more tools designed to control our lives. Only too often we accept them as a civilizational necessity which we cannot escape.

Surveillance itself is, of course, nothing new under the sun – it has been present in the history of mankind from the beginning. Yet today, with the development of data processing techniques, it became predominant and much more intrusive. Systematic collection, combination and exchange of information on each one of us is deemed to be a condition for the functioning of contemporary states and economy. New forms of control are also linked with social transformations. Ourselves, we desire surveillance more and more: we are afraid of uncertainty and wish to live in a tailor-made world.

Does surveillance bring us any benefits?

It does. From very practical ones (such as personalized services) and more psychological ones (such as a sense of control or affinity). The price does not seem excessive, as contemporary tools of control are usually not very inconvenient. It is hard for us to stand a scrutinizing look of a person observing us or a detailed personal search, but we quite easily accept „the sight” of a CCTV camera or a body scanner. A majority of us do not even notice new surveillance measures, which results in a situation where they become more and more common beyond the social control. We still do not understand the threats related to them and we cannot defend ourselves against them. As a society, we have not yet developed the proper mechanisms of defence. Nor even a language appropriate to describe the new phenomena.

It does. From very practical ones (such as personalized services) and more psychological ones (such as a sense of control or affinity). The price does not seem excessive, as contemporary tools of control are usually not very inconvenient. It is hard for us to stand a scrutinizing look of a person observing us or a detailed personal search, but we quite easily accept „the sight” of a CCTV camera or a body scanner. A majority of us do not even notice new surveillance measures, which results in a situation where they become more and more common beyond the social control. We still do not understand the threats related to them and we cannot defend ourselves against them. As a society, we have not yet developed the proper mechanisms of defence. Nor even a language appropriate to describe the new phenomena.

Big Brother remains the most resonant metaphor of surveillance. Unfortunately, the Orwellian vision of an omnipotent state, based on the information monopoly and profoundly controlling the lives of its citizens, does not allow to grasp all contemporary challenges. Our reality is very often closer to the realities of the television show Big Brother, who does not keep anyone in confinement anymore and does not enforce obedience, but selects and gets rid of people, evoking the fear of exclusion. Contemporary surveillance is also more ubiquitous, dispersed, liquid. The source of oppression is not just the omnipotent state – when withdrawing from subsequent domains of life, the state shared its power with business (slipping out of the social control). Instead, it gladly uses information about us, collected on a mass scale by private companies.

Risk management became the key method of controlling the surrounding reality. This refers not only to managing the population or a customer database, but also public security. In accordance with the new paradigm, it is not about identification of an individual who committed something wrong, but about predicting the future. The new tools are used to monitor the society, to allocate people – on the basis of their specific features and behaviours – to different risk groups and tracking potentially dangerous individuals. According to this philosophy, each one of us is a potential suspect. However, we do not gain much in terms of security. Reality stubbornly escapes the most ingenious algorithms and remains unpredictable.

Our world gradually sinks into the obsession of fear. The constant increase of surveillance is meant to help us protect ourselves from it. Step by step, we resign from various dimensions of our freedom, hoping that this will ensure greater safety for us. It is often in vain. The alternative "either freedom or security" is simply false. Surveillance may increase safety and security, nevertheless, equally often it serves entirely different – political or financial – aims. We should at least be aware of that situation.

7 sins of surveillance society

Panoptykon was established to address the problem of growing surveillance. Why is it a problem and why we are dedicated to reduce it? Here is our list of the seven "sins" of the surveillance society:

  1. Interference with privacy
  2. Discrimination and exclusion
  3. System errors
  4. Increasing fear, erosion of trust
  5. Masking instead of solving problems
  6. Diffusion of responsibility
  7. Compulsion instead of ethics

Panoptykon was established to address the problem of growing surveillance. Why is it a problem and why we are dedicated to reduce it? Here is our list of the seven "sins" of the surveillance society:

  1. Interference with privacy
    Contemporary surveillance more and more deeply infringes our privacy. Detailed information on our everyday activities is collected almost in every location and area of our life: at work, in school, in a shop, in public transport. It is more and more difficult to avoid that: we are under constant observation. At home – by private security agents. On a lonely stroll – by smartphone, "the mobile leash". Browsing through the Internet, though we feel anonymous, in fact we leave hundreds of digital traces. Even in public toilets we are watched by CCTV cameras. All that information collected about us can be useful to someone and for something, but usually we do not really know to whom and for what purpose. And actually we do not have any control over it. On the other hand, governments and corporations know more and more about our lives – so the information assymetry is growing.
  2. Discrimination and exclusion
    Contemporary surveillance is based on dividing people into categories. On the basis of our various features (from our looks to the webpages we browse on the Internet) we are being assessed: what is our purchasing potential, what threat we pose for the security. And then we are allocated to a statistically “appropriate” pigeonhole. That inevitably leads to various forms of discrimination and exclusion. Many appalling cases of human rights infringements due to religion or nationality took place in the framework of the so-called war on terror. Yet, the discriminating influence of surveillance may affect each of us in our everyday lives – in the form of a refusal of access to specific places or services or necessity to pay a higher price for a purchased product.
  3. System errors
    Algorithms that divide people into categories are not infallible. Even in the case of the most advanced statistical methods, once in a while a bad hit must happen. Its consequences may be prosaic, like a mere badly personalized web advert. But the propagation of profiling and risk assessment in other spheres of life inevitably leads to a situation in which the consequences of errors may be way more serious. In the United States many people can not get on the plane just because of the "wrong" profile: on the basis of the data collected about them (e.g. names, travel routes) they became considered as suspicious. They have to prove their innocence.
  4. Increasing fear, erosion of trust
    The essntial ally of contemporary surveillance is fear. It is fear that justifies erecting more and more fences and walls, installing surveillance cameras, employing guards. Everything in order to separate oneself from a potential – but not always real – threat. Problems connected therewith are well illustrated by the development of gated communities and other guarded spaces in which we spend more and more time. Being "protected" from the surrounding world we gain a momentary comfort, but in the long run we became only more and more afraid of what is behind the fence. That fence becomes the tangible proof that danger lurks around, it separates us from others, it makes it difficult to build a relationship of trust. All that increases fear and creates the need for further forms of surveillance.
  5. Masking instead of solving problems
    New surveillance measures are presented as panacea for diverse social problems. We often agree to give away our freedom, being convinced that some important goal will be achieved as a result of that. Surveillance cameras are supposed to help fight thieves and vandals, whereas blocking websites – eliminate undesired content from the Internet. However, usually surveillance measures only mask the symptoms of problems and do not deal with their sources. Blocking websites may make it more difficult to pop into undesired content, however, it will still be accessible to any person interested. A surveillance camera will not discourage anyone from pursuing the way of crime, but may replace the necessary preventive measures. Removing a problem from sight does not make it disappear; quite the contrary – it may grow, as there is no pressure to solve it.
  6. Diffusion of responsibility
    In the surveilled space it is more difficult to mobilize oneself to act when we see something wrong happening. Can it be surprising that in a shopping mall full of cameras and guards we expect that a competent person will appear and intervene in the case of a fight or theft? More and more spaces we live in start to resemble a shopping mall by their level of surveillance. It may evoke unpredicted consequences: it may not only favour a momentary diffusion of responsibility, but also strengthen the passive attitude in us and the feeling of not being responsible for what is going on around us.
  7. Compulsion instead of ethics
    We are not born with a feeling of responsibility for our deeds – we acquire it along with experience and education. In order for the mechanisms of internal control to be developed, certain degree of freedom is necessary, and above all the possibility to commit mistakes and pay for their consequences. Nowadays, from the earliest childhood we are being subjected to increasingly stricter control, which drastically limits that sphere of freedom. Upbringing and instilling values in children are replaced by compulsion, generated by new forms of control. Instead of putting premium on responsibility and ethical standards, we promote mindless conformity which may disappear as soon as the surveillance corset is loosened.