The History of Mass Surveillance

In 1791, the English philosopher and death penalty abolitionist Jeremy Bentham published the design for his “Panopticon” prison- a structure Bentham hoped would embody the utilitarian ideals of a more humane society. In late 1800s England, there were around 200 offenses punishable by death- pick pocketing included. Besides execution, other common methods of punishing criminals were sending them to fight wars or to make the long dangerous journey to penal colonies in America and Australia. There were a few rudimentary prisons in England during this time; these were mainly debtor prisons and they had terrible conditions. Convicts languished in overcrowded filthy rooms – with the more unruly shackled bloody wrist to some dank corridor’s wall. For Bentham, these early prisons were not an acceptable alternative to execution, war or exile. These dark rooms and corridors overseen by merciless guards posed a problem that he hoped- creative architecture could solve. The objective of this architecture was to harness the illuminating power of light. Light that would keep order in the prison, a more humane approach than the constant threat of physical punishment. An idea of noble intentions- but an idea that would change the course of history. The Panopticon’s design laid the foundation for modern surveillance.

The societal transformation beginning with the Enlightenment and leading to the American and French revolutions is attributed to rejecting royal absolutism. The philosopher Michel Foucault systematically describes this evolution of power in his writings. Before, the Royals were the ones visible in the light – with their intimidating large castles, ostentatious clothing and dramatic ceremonies. The general population lived in the dark, controlled by fear of harsh punishment. Foucault explains that this began to change with the Eighteenth century concept of reforming, not just punishing criminals. This evolving reform-based legal system transformed the prisoners and general population into the visible ones. With the shift from “monarchial punishment” to “disciplinary punishment,” Foucault describes a less brutal punishment process – a process that increasingly substitutes control though brutality with control though surveillance. Bentham’s Panopticon prison concept, according to Foucault, was the earliest form of surveillance technology. The circular structure required all the prisoner cells to have a window – allowing in sunlight to shine in on the inmates. Bentham envisioned a center guard tower with venetian blinds on the windows- keeping the prisoners from seeing any activity inside. The inmates were to live in a constant fear of being watched – even if nobody was in the guard tower. Bentham’s goal was a surveillance of great efficiency. Foucault writes: “Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.”

A number of prisons since the nineteenth century were constructed with the Panoticon’s circular theme. As it turned out- the implementation of Bentham’s design proved a challenge to realize as he fully intended. In reality the center tower’s view was limited to observing inside the window area of the prisoner cell doors, but not all the activity inside. Although the Panopticon failed to create a complete surveillance reality through architecture, Bentham’s objectives moved forward as more advanced technologies carried on the torch of observation – an observation system not limited just to prisons – but one that could monitor and control all of society.

In George Orwell’s prophetic book Nineteen Eighty-Four we find protagonist Winston Smith living under near constant observation of telescreens and hidden microphones – located in both public spaces and his flat. In 2012, societies around the world are coming ever closer to reaching Orwellian levels of surveillance by the powers that be. A key technology in mass observation is the implementation of CCTV (closed circuit television) – which had its developmental roots in the 1940s. CCTV was the technology which finally realized Bentham’s prison objectives. Whereas architectural sightline manipulations could create limited surveillanceb- cameras could be placed anywhereb- and penitentiaries began to take full advantage. Eventually this technology was unleashed on the general public. In 1973, one of the earliest public CCTV systems was set up in NYC’s crime ridden Times Square. The number of these outdoor systems has grown greatly over time, particularly in the US and Britain. Simply having the cameras there creates the situation of control – the effect Bentham planned for his Panopticon. The technology of CCTV was a major leap forward for mass surveillance – and certainly a system with dangerous societal possibilities in regard to privacy and freedom issues. A scary reality in its own right, but as new technologies continue to be developed, the world of mass surveillance is now entering a phase of major qualitative change – an evolution towards – Total Mass Surveillance.

If the efficiency of CCTV technology is the psychological effect on the observed who cannot know if they are being observed or not – imagine the effect if the observed knew for sure that they are being observed. The commonplace activities of internet and cell phone communication created the right conditions for a society of total surveillance. Super computers have increased in speed drastically over the last 20 years. Hard drive space has gotten cheaper and cheaper. The surveillance industry has created software programs to monitor and record an increasingly vast amount of information. Information from E-mails, chat rooms, cell phone calls and text messages. The latest technology- facial recognition software has been applied to the video images captured from CCTV cameras.

The key to these evolving technologies is the use of information mining filters to find people and conversations of interest. This filtering is applied to the information monitored from computers, cell phones and CCTV systems. Voice, text and facial image information can be processed in mass volumes at high speeds. Since vast amounts of information is taken in- the “target” words and facial images are filtered out and analyzed more closely. Whereas text from an e-mail conversation is quick to process, voice and facial information is more complex – however the surveillance industry has been hard at work on these challenges. Facial recognition had a fairly low success rate ten years ago, but effectiveness has doubled every two years since. Governments seem to be vested in the successful implementation of this technology. The photos from Canadian passports and many US states driver’s licenses are taken with a straight face – the logic being this is what a CCTV camera would most likely capture. Facial recognition is already a reality in our lives due to Facebook’s processing of its user’s pictures. Huge databases store biometrically analyzed pictures that people post of ourselves and others. All facial images in group pictures are recognized by the software interconnecting them. Facebook claims this instant process simply prompts users to “tag” others for their page – but do we know for sure if this is the only purpose? Internet based facial recognition progressed rather quickly because it works with static and generally clear pictures that people post of themselves and others. Analyzing CCTV images is much more difficult since the video pictures are often low quality and grainy. It seems however, that this problem has recently been overcome. Professor Brian Lovell of the University of Queensland led a team of researchers for an Australian government sponsored surveillance project. Lovell claims they have solved the “holy grail” of facial recognition, allowing for software to effectively process even grainy CCTV video. He proclaimed: “We do recognition in real-time so you walk up to a system and you’re recognized; it can search a database of 10,000 or 50,000 instantaneously and do the matching.”

The other complex surveillance hurdle: effective and fast cell phone voice filtering – also has been achieved. Considering we are more and more connected by cell phones (even in poor countries), this opportunity for mass monitoring has definitely not been overlooked by governments. The task has required years of advancements to speed up the conversion of the voice’s sound waves into text for analysis. Target words such as: “infidel” and “bomb” are filtered out for further observation. Again, this technology has also been advanced in part by mainstream tech companies such as Microsoft. As for specific mass surveillance technology sold to democratic governments and dictatorships alike, there are dozens of rarely-heard-of tech companies specifically filling this role. These companies, however, are becoming less unknown.

On December 1st 2011, Wikileaks began to release “The Spy Files”, a collection of brochures and documents from surveillance technology companies. Among the leaks is a brochure from the Israel-based company NICE. This literature touts that NICE has made great headways with voice analysis filtering technology. Such claims are made in the brochure about their product

NiceTrack Horizon Insight:

Keyword Spotting-

Recognizes predefined indicative words in various languages to quickly identify suspicious subject matter.

Target Speaker Hunting-

Automatically identifies targets and suspects in very high volumes of communications by biometrically matching voice prints.

Expose Entire Target Networks-

Visualizes all communications-based relationships between targets and unknown suspects to expand the accessibility and information associated with criminals and terrorists.

These advancement claims made by NICE, and Professor Lovell’s concerning facial recognition software give us an indication as to how close we are (at least technically speaking) to Orwell’s Uber-Stalinist hell of 1984. Nations may be technically capable, but what are the political realities? It’s safe to say all governments around the world will utilize these new technologies to some degree. Many leaders in Western countries including the United States and Britain claim the necessity of surveillance for national security after 9/11. Nations like China and India are feeling the pressures of their huge populations wanting more freedom- mostly disenfranchised people who finally gained a small but relevant voice with the internet. The “Arab spring” has toppled three governments due to web- and cell phone-organized uprisings – without doubt leaders around the world have taken note. Leaders are getting nervous – and surveillance companies are getting richer. As nations increasingly utilize this mass data observation technology – evolved from the Panopticon prison design – the question is: did Jeremy Bentham open Pandora’s box?