Published on July 11, 2014

Campaigners are wrong: we need more surveillance not less

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is a Senior Associate of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

Panopticon, carrie sloanGovernment is claiming more powers to watch over citizens. But if this really is needed then it shouldn’t be a one way street; citizens need increased transparency and power to watch over the powerful too. 

Last night the Prime Minister announced emergency legislation to ensure police and security services can continue to access phone and internet records. This was in response to a ruling by the European Court of Justice which struck down existing powers.

The response from civil liberties campaigners has been swift and negative.

The panopticon is a prison designed by the 18th Century philosopher, Jeremy Bentham and was brought to prominence through Michel Foucault’s writing on power and knowledge. It is imagined as a circle of cells round a central court. Prisoners can’t tell whether the guard in the court is watching them or not. They therefore behave as if they are being watched at all times. The image of the panopticon is a classic metaphor to describe how governments and corporations are able to watch citizens at all times.

I’m in no position to judge whether the security threats we currently face justify such an invasion into citizens privacy or not. It makes me very uncomfortable and the level of oversight appears very weak to me. However, it is undoubtedly true that moves to gain access to citizens’ data are more important for politicians than moves to allow citizens to access and observe what those in power are doing.

Let’s take it as read for the sake of this post that all three parties are channelling the democratic will of the people.*  Let’s also work on the basis that citizens are happy with the trade-off between privacy and security being made, and that the social engineering implied by the panopticon of constant surveillance sits well with them.

If the panopticon is such a powerful tool then we should apply it wherever power is being abused. We should use it, as all parties want to do, to prevent people with the power and will to build a bomb to cause mayhem in crowded streets. But we must also use it to prevent those with the power and will to  siphon off millions of pounds in corrupt contracts, for example.

If we must go down this route, then what we need is a reverse Panopticon (a nocitponap if you will), so that those in power can’t tell when we are watching them. Nocitponap may not have quite the same ring to it, but it is important that those in power can’t tell when citizens are observing what they are doing. It might make them behave a bit better.

Photo credit: Carrie Sloan

*I’m not at all sure that this is the case. When engaged in deeper conversations citizens tend to make very nuanced balances between rights and responsibilities, and civil liberties and restrictions on the way we live.

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