“Even the NSA, with its capacity, could not read every email, listen to every telephone call, and track the actions of each individual. What makes a surveillance system effective in controlling human behavior is the knowledge that one’s words and actions are susceptible to monitoring.
This principle was at the heart of British philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s eighteenth-century conception of the Panopticon, a building design he believed would allow institutions to effectively control human behavior. The building’s structure was to be used, in his words, for “any sort of establishment, in which persons of any description are to be kept under inspection.” The Panopticon’s primary architectural innovation was a large central tower from which every room—or cell, or classroom, or ward—could be monitored at any time by guards. The inhabitants, however, were not able to see into the tower and so could never know whether they were or were not being watched.
Since the institution—any institution—was not capable of observing all of the people all of the time, Bentham’s solution was to create “the apparent omnipresence of the inspector” in the minds of the inhabitants. “The persons to be inspected should always feel themselves as if under inspection, at least as standing a great chance of being so.” They would thus act as if they were always being watched, even if they weren’t. The result would be compliance, obedience, and conformity with expectations. Bentham envisioned that his creation would spread far beyond prisons and mental hospitals to all societal institutions. Inculcating in the minds of citizens that they might always be monitored would, he understood, revolutionize human behavior.
In the 1970s, Michel Foucault observed that the principle of Bentham’s Panopticon was one of the foundational mechanisms of the modern state. In Power, he wrote that Panopticonism is “a type of power that is applied to individuals in the form of continuous individual supervision, in the form of control, punishment, and compensation, and in the form of correction, that is, the moulding and transformation of individuals in terms of certain norms.”
In Discipline and Punish, Foucault further explained that ubiquitous surveillance not only empowers authorities and compels compliance but also induces individuals to internalize their watchers. Those who believe they are watched will instinctively choose to do that which is wanted of them without even realizing that they are being controlled—the Panopticon induces “in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.” With the control internalized, the overt evidence of repression disappears because it is no longer necessary: “the external power may throw off its physical weight; it tends to be non-corporal; and, the more it approaches this limit, the more constant, profound and permanent are its effects: it is a profound victory that avoids any physical confrontation and which is always decided in advance.”
Glenn Greenwald. “No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the Surveillance State.”