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Panopticonism & the Ethics of Technological Surveillance

Published: 23rd Apr, 2022


In today’s digitalised world, panopticism is getting used as a metaphor to define “technological surveillance.”

  • The present-day CCTV camera is a candid example of how the theory works with people being cautious about how they behave irrespective of whether the camera is functional or not.

Understanding Panopticonism

  • Panopticonism was a theory introduced by Michel Foucault in one of his most influential books, “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison”.
  • It is a concept that explains a new model of surveillance in society.
  • Elaborated by English philosopher and architect Jeremy Bentham, the panopticon was a circular building with cells built into its circular walls with an observational tower at the centre.
    • A guard could observe every move of the prisoners in each cell from the observational tower.
    • The prisoners, in turn, could see the tower but could not see anything inside it on account of the difference in height as well as the shutters and blinds.
    • The ambiguity about whether or not they were being observed forced the prisoners to conduct themselves inside their cells with the assumption that the guards could be observing them at any point in time.
  • This was the perfect idea for a prison, according to Bentham, as it was visible yet unverifiable. He believed that the fear of constant surveillance could help bring order and discipline, alter and reform groups and preserve morals inside the four walls of the prison.

What is meant by ‘Technological Surveillance’?

  • Surveillance as defined is the monitoring of the behaviour, activities or other changing information of people for the purpose of influencing, managing, directing or protecting them.
  • Surveillance of an individual would raise concerns on the type of surveillance being used and being monitored by whom.
  • In the digital world, the process of digitisation has been optimised through the Big Data Revolution. It is now considered the ‘New Gold’.
  • Based on ‘one like’ a person’s personal choices ranging from clothes, food, politics everything could be analysed and enumerated.
  • This data is then used by companies to sell the apt products or services based on our preferences.
  • We are dependent on various applications for booking appointments, paying bills and also making some quick decisions, for instance, finance, insurance or stock management. The life between online and offline has been significantly blurred and is now present in almost all aspects of our life.

Ethical Concerns of Technological Surveillance

  • Since power is exercised over us and our decision-making is invisible and unverifiable we do not explicitly feel being violated.
  • While downloading an app, or giving acceptance to certain access on our phone we do not analyse the consequences of it.
  • As our human mind is conditioned to focus on results and to maximise desires, we tend to ignore threats that are certainly looming over us all the time.
  • George Orwell’s ‘Big Brother’ is now transformed into an invisible power wherein our choices and rights are not limited, we are not living in an authoritarian state rather we are living in a state of illusion.
  • Data is controlling our search optimisation techniques.

USA case Study:

  • After the infamous revelation of the surveillance system of United States investigative agencies by the whistleblower Edward Snowden, people and scholars started to identify the ethical issues surrounding privacy, big data, and Governance.
  • Further, after the US Presidential elections in 2016, this concern was alleviated by a controversy. Scholars have termed this kind of technology as persuasive technology. Digital panopticism is controlling and changing our behavioural patterns.
  • Russian hackers targeted US voter rolls in several states as part of the Kremlin’s broader efforts to undermine the integrity of the 2016 elections, and since then, security researchers have discovered further breaches of data affecting 198 million Americans, 93 million Mexican, 55 million Filipino, and 50 million Turkish voters.
  • In April 2018, Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg testified in two congressional hearings about his company’s role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which it was revealed that Facebook had exposed the data of up to 87 million users to political exploitation. The case was a reminder of how personal information is increasingly being employed to influence electoral outcomes.
  • Recently, a popular magazine in the U.S. took a survey of how many would have objections to the idea of surveillance? If the survey result is to be believed, many had no problem if they are being monitored as they have nothing to hide from the government. Exactly, when there is nothing to hide and are true to oneself, the need for fear is gone.

Chinese Case Study:

  • Disinformation and propaganda disseminated online have poisoned the public sphere. The unbridled collection of personal data has broken down traditional notions of privacy. And a cohort of countries is moving toward digital authoritarianism by embracing the Chinese model of extensive censorship and automated surveillance systems. As a result of these trends, global internet freedom declined for the eighth consecutive year in 2018.
  • China’s surveillance is particularly suffocating in Xinjiang, where the authorities use mobile apps, biometric collection, artificial intelligence, and big data, among other means, to control 13 million Turkic Muslims.

India’s Case Study:

  • Recently, a list of persons allegedly targeted by Pegasus spyware was released by a multi-organisational investigation involving news organizations, cybersecurity specialists, and Amnesty International. The list includes over 1,000 Indians, including at least 40 journalists, and several members of Parliament. It said the Indian government used it to spy on around 300 people between 2017 and 2019.

The Necessity of Technological Surveillance

  • With the advancement of technology, there are advantages and disadvantages. In the case of surveillance, it definitely questions one's privacy but one needs to think that if the individual responsible for planning the terrorized attacks is also being monitored and probably we would be safe as a result of being watched.
  • Surveillance using cameras in public places, which is being implied in almost all the metros, is recommended option and provides a lot of information needed for the investigations of any criminal activity involved, thereby saving a lot of time and resources for the government.
  • Surveillance incorporate is also recommended, because it not only tracks the movements of the employees but also traces the outsider's activity in the building.
  • Corporate leaders in India like Infosys etc have cameras installed at the entrance of every building. Employees may not like it but the need of being watched has come.
  • Also, many of them use snooping tools to know the whereabouts of their family, with a concern for the loved one's security. Though there is a difference between snooping and surveillance, all is good for the sake of security.
  • In India, if an official snooped on a young woman for the sake of her security, definitely does not arise the question of rights be legal, moral and ethical.
  • The urge to surveillance rose because of the rise in insecurity of an individual. Had we been more moral to ourselves, more ethical to ourselves and more legitimate to ourselves we would not have to deal with such unnecessary technology for our security.
  • In this entire scheme of things, the government has to be honest with its citizens. If the government itself hides the truth and gets involved in the scams the meaning of mass surveillance goes in vain.

Response to Technological Surveillance

  • Many countries have now adopted digital media codes or rules and regulations to restrict the misuse of the data collected by various online platforms. In India, the recent Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021 is also laid down on similar lines. The government has described these rules as a soft-touch self-regulatory mechanism.
  • All media platforms will have to set up a grievances redressal and compliance mechanism, which should constitute a resident grievance officer, chief compliance officer, and a nodal contact person.
  • The Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology has further ordered platforms to submit monthly reports on complaints received from users and actions taken. Finally, instant messaging apps will have to make provisions for tracking the first originator of a message in case it is asked by legitimate authorities. Apprehensions raised by companies are related to the latter part of the rule.
  • Media platforms will have to accept the rules for the greater good. However, both sides will have to reconcile and find a middle way to ensure the safety of the citizens. On the other hand, specific rules will have to be laid down as to stating the purpose of tracking messages and how the data will be utilised.
  • The government’s initiative is timely as technology is outgrowing the legal-justice system. The new era is going to be the age of the digital world, however ethical themes as enshrined in international treaties and our constitution must always be upheld.
  • Human dignity and the right to privacy under Fundamental Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) must guide the policies and actions of various entities. Values such as autonomy, equal power relationships, and control over technology are not explicitly named in the treaties but can be seen as part of following these fundamental and human rights.


Not only are existing protections weak but the proposed legislation related to the personal data protection of Indian citizens fails to consider surveillance while also providing wide exemptions to government authorities. In order to satisfy the ideal of due process of law, there needs to be an oversight from another branch of the government. As surveillance spyware becomes more affordable and interception becomes more efficient, there will no longer be a need to shortlist individuals. Everyone will be potentially subject to state-sponsored mass surveillance. The only solution is immediate and far-reaching surveillance reform.

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