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Panoptopia and the Pushbutton Panopticon


With too many people defending the new levels of surveillance, I thought I would introduce a new word: Panoptopia -- a world made wonderful by having so much surveillance that we can catch all the bad guys.

David Brin introduced the concept to many in The Transparent Society, though he doesn't claim it's a utopia, just better than the alternative as he sees it.

It used to be that "If you are innocent you have nothing to hide" was supposed to be a statement whose irony was obvious to all. Today, I see people saying it seriously.

Because of that, we're on our way to building the pushbutton panopticon. We're building the apparatus of very high levels of surveillance and pretending we are putting checks and balances on their use. Cameras everwhere. NSA taps into all international communications. Total Information Awareness and other large data mining projects. Vast amounts of our private records stored on 3rd party servers of search engines and email companies where we have fewer rights and even less control. CALEA requirements that phone equipment and broadband lines have pre-built wiretapping facilities, in theory to be turned on only with a warrant.

In all these cases we are told the information won't be abused, that process will be followed. And in most cases, I can even believe them.

But the problem is this. Now our rights are protected not by physical limits or extreme costs, but by a policy decision. To the extreme, by a simple policy bit, a single switch. Now to change the society from a free one to a police state can become effectively just throwing a switch if you have the political will.

In the old days, creating a police state required taking over the radio stations with tanks, and putting police on all the street corners. We are building a world where it involves getting the political will to throw a switch. And we're selling that switch to all the countries of the world as they buy our technology.

Can you wonder why I fear this doesn't end well?


I don't think anything has changed in the way government works or what it wants. The "problem" you note is more that good automated surveillance is becoming cheaper, hence more widespread. I've worked on a system recently tracking vehicles in and out of a town dump where we used number plate recognition because it's the cheapest way to track vehicles. Swipe cards cost more because they get lost and the scanners are vulnerable to people who can't drive straight.

The other half of the equation is the technology of persuasion. When the advertisors and political machines know everyone in detail they can narrowcast targeted messages engineered to hit everyones' sweet spot. Once you and your neighbor are getting very different political ads for the same candidate, we'll have turned the corner.

Three small supporting arguments:

1. If we rid the world of crime, we will invent new crimes. Take away the hard crimes, and the justice system will seek to justify its own existance by cracking down hard on jaywalkers of our society, or will be overrun by special interests (religious nuts, anti-religious nuts, etc.) who will create laws to fit their own world view and shut out all others.

2. With 100% enforcement, society will never have an opportunity to re-think what it considers a crime. Where would gays be in this country if 100% enforcement of bedroom activities was possible 40 years ago?

3. 100% enforcement leads to real-world inefficiency. I evacuated for Hurricane Rita from my home in Beaumont. I know dozens of people who lived in New Orleans. Our evacuation problems were caused 100% by nanny-government officials not just letting people get the hell out of dodge. This is an extreme example, but it shows that no set of laws can cover every edge case.

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