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[liberationtech] Sociological studies of covert mass-surveillance organisations

Caspar Bowden (lists) lists at casparbowden.net
Mon Sep 2 00:46:27 PDT 2013


On 09/01/13 21:49, Michael Rogers wrote:
> On 01/09/13 10:00, Caspar Bowden (lists) wrote:
>> AFAIK Deleuze, Foucault et al. did not say anything specifically
>> about covert (mass-)surveillance, or analyse how the inherently
>> secret nature of such organizations might be a causal element in
>> theories of social control. Secret surveillance organizations are
>> NOT Panoptic in a technical sense - they normally don't want you to
>> know or fear they are watching (with tactical exceptions).
> Is there anyone who's aware of overt surveillance and who doesn't at
> least suspect that some form of covert surveillance also exists? And
> isn't that suspicion enough to create a panoptic effect?

to some *unconscious* extent yes, but I have never seen any 
psychological studies into this. There ought to be an effect where even 
"solid citizens" become inhibited from communicating (or thinking! much 
harder experiment) certain ideas, depending on the level of "ambient 
NSA-phobia", and this indeed might function as a form of social control. 
Never seen any studies on that idea. [Of course the STASI and others 
would make the surveillance obvious for the purpose of intimidation as a 
standard tactic in particular cases, but in general the watchers don't 
want the watched to know true capabilities]

However on the face of it, that isn't the classical Panopticon, where 
discipline is maintained by fear of detection by the unseen warden

> The prisoners don't know whether they're being watched at any moment,
> or whether the watchtower is even occupied; the secret surveillance
> organisation, the existence of which cannot be confirmed, corresponds
> to the warden who may or may not be in the watchtower.

In Jeremy Bentham's original proposal, his idea was that prisoners who 
break discipline wilfully or transgress otherwise are singled out (at 
random possibly) and then publicly punished in the sight of all the rest 
as an example, but only a few days after the transgression, to magnify 
the prisoner's demoralisation after thinking they have got away with it. 
Incidentally, Bentham envisaged this system becoming a dynastic 
livelihood for him and his family, and petitioned the government to 
build a prison, and make him the warder! Nice work if you can get it, 
plenty of time for scholalry pursuits between semi-random episodes of 
exemplary punishment.

However, a possible Waiting-for-Godot variant of this idea would be that 
nasty things happen to prisoners in a more ambiguous way, so that 
prisoners never know if the watching warden even exists at all - it 
might all be random misfortune (of course well-behaved prisoners would 
also have to be punished sometimes randomly to maintain the 
uncertainty). It isn't clear why this is a better strategy for the 
wardens, except perhaps the uncertainty makes it harder for enough 
resentment to crystallize for a rebellion to occur.

> Wasn't the NSA closer to the panoptic ideal when it was No Such Agency
> than now, when we know we're being watched?

Yes, absolutely, but I don't think NSA wanted that, although a grimly 
conspiratorial interpretation of current events is that it is a vast 
planned PR gambit to effect transition to a global neo-Panoptic society, 
after all civil libertarians have exhausted themselves in protest...

Caspar



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