Yes, I know we face many dangers these days: economic inequality, climate change, an unjustly prosecuted war on drugs. Not to mention an increasingly tainted food and water supply, a dysfunctional education system, blowback from our imperialistic foreign policy and other seriously important issues. But the free flow of information -- both public and private -- via the internet shared without fear of government reprisal enables more effective advocacy for all the aforementioned issues.
The Panopticon is a prison where all cells can be seen from a central tower shielded such that the guards can see out but the prisoners can’t see in. The prisoners in the Panopticon could thus never know whether they were being surveilled, meaning that they have to, if they want to avoid running the risk of severe punishment, assume that they were being watched at all times. Thus, the Panopticon functioned as an effective tool of social control even when it wasn’t being staffed by a single guard.Using the Panopticon as metaphor, Foucault seemed to envision this 21st Century world in which we live. He posits that countries choosing to control society like the hypothetical guards at Panopticon, are doing so using a form of mind control. You could call it a form of indirect mind control. Foucault calls it “disciplinary power.” Basically an insidious, "trust us" approach; like a "build it and they will come" path. After all, the internet was a joint project between the government and corporations. If you really think about it, what better way to monitor the citizenry than to have them all communicating in easily-monitored online forums, emails services, and text messages on the latest smartphone?
If a government can monitor what information is sent, received and disseminated throughout the country using programs like Prism -- and can virtually peer at will into what a person is doing at any given time -- it can control the very behavior of that person. That kind of power instills fear, and over time, people become conformists, even if they don't intend to. In other words, unless you're totally fearless and endowed with an alpha-type rebellious nature -- when you think someone's watching -- you tend to do what's expected of you. Kinda like a kid playing with a friend in the front yard and a parent sitting on the porch or in front of the picture window inside the house staring. The urge to show off in front of your friends and neighbors and perhaps deviate from your normal behavior is strong. But you inherently avoid screwing off, knowing your parents are watching and you fear castigation.
In essence, you become your own best behaved self; a self-regulator, if you will.
Online privacy advocates have long worried that government surveillance programs could end up disciplining internet users in precisely this fashion. In 1997, the FBI began using something called Project Carnivore, an online surveillance data tool designed to mimic traditional wiretaps, but for email. However, because online information is not like a phone number in several basic senses, Carnivore ended up capturing far more information than it was intended to. It also had virtually no oversight outside of the FBI.Ya think?
As the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) told Congress in 2000, “Systems like Carnivore have the potential to turn into mass surveillance systems that will harm our free and open society…Once individuals realize that they have a lowered expectation of privacy on the Net, they may not visit particular web sites that they may otherwise have visited.” Writing in 2004, a group of scholars drew a straight line from this analysis to Foucault’s theory of disciplinary power. “Resembling the ever-present powers of the central watchtower in a prison modeled after the Panopticon,” they wrote “the very fact that the FBI has the potential to monitor communications on a website may lead Internet users to believe that they are constantly being watched.”
I have to admit, long before this latest revelation regarding blanket surveillance, when communicating online, I've often tempered my views and opinions about our government, and even hesitated to visit certain websites -- probably more so during the Bush years -- but generally throughout the length of my seven years here at Daily Kos, and other progressive internet forums across the web. I still spoke out, and continue to do so. But I force myself to choose my words carefully. The thought of being closely monitored has always instilled a chilling effect both on my way of thinking, and the words I choose to convey it. That effect has become even more intense and foreboding now. But the existential sense of dread is building inside of me. I've never embraced an affinity to conform. I don't much like being controlled. And I like even less being intimidated... by anyone or anything.
We know now that this hypothetical fear about Carnivore has become a reality, courtesy of the NSA. The more people come to see mass online surveillance as a norm, rather than something used only on specific subjects of investigation, the more they’ll tailor their online habits to it. Since people understandably don’t want the government looking at their private information, that’ll mean the internet will over time slowly become less of a place for vibrant self-expression. That should trouble anyone who believes that the best society is one in which people are most free to be themselves in whatever way they find most meaningful. In essence, that should trouble anyone committed to the basic liberal project.Damn right it does. We cannot ignore that commitment.
In order to push back, we must pressure Congress and the POTUS. And also revive OWS. Along with a vibrant social media, a strong, diverse Occupy movement has to once again become primary tool we can use to change America to reflect the ideals of the Constitution; ideals to which we've always been told our country espouses. In order for an equitable representative democracy to flourish, liberal policies, both economic and social, must prevail. We know through history... those types of policies work for all citizens. And if we're to continue this capitalistic/socialistic experimental society... conservative ideology must be marginalized.
And so should institutionalized governmental policies like Prism.