British philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham was of the opinion that transparency could help in maintaining social order. But, what if this rule also applies to those in authority? If citizens lose their privacy, then governments won’t be able to keep secrets very well either. Where does it lead us all to? Where is the balance?
The Panopticon Theory
The extreme view of Jeremy Bentham is captured in the image of an institutional building—a jail—known as the Panopticon. The rooms consisted of a transparent inner wall that allowed any watcher at the center to see into the inmate’s jail cell. The idea was to allow a single watchman to monitor all of the inmates of the institution without himself being observed. As a result, the inmates would always behave themselves.
Bentham’s Panopticon reveals the dangers of pervasive surveillance. But, let’s also look at the opposite point of view.
Ring of Gyges
In book two of the Republic, Socrates considers what it is that makes men just. Glaucon, one of the participants in the dialogue, offers the view that morality is nothing more than a social construction, and that citizens are virtuous and just only because they fear sanction for acting in an unjust manner.
To illustrate this, Glaucon introduces a discussion of the Ring of Gyges, a mythical magical ring that renders the wearer invisible. What Glaucon wonders is what would cause a man to be just and virtuous if he had such a ring. His view is that no man would be of “such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice” if he could engage in unjust behavior without any fear of punishment.
This is a transcript from the video series The Surveillance State: Big Data, Freedom, and You. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
What If There Is No Surveillance?
Glaucon’s idea is consistent with at least some of our experience, which is that, in the absence of consequences, and in the absence of surveillance, social order can break down. So, this parable is the flipside of Bentham’s concept of pervasive surveillance. It tells us that, sometimes, surveillance is essential to order and society.
A flipside to the loss of privacy is a gain in transparency. This can be valuable, to the extent that it gives citizens insight into actions of their governments. An example of this is the growing use of digital video to film police actions and document possible abuses. This type of surveillance uses monitoring technology to watch the watchers or other powerful entities.
Watching the Watchers
An example that illustrates it rather well involves the death of a Hamas operative in Dubai. On January 19, 2010, Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was murdered in his hotel.
Law-enforcement authorities in Dubai were soon able to identify a hit squad with more than 20 members who were responsible for the killing. Many of them had traveled to Dubai on fraudulent passports.
How the government made the connection shows just how difficult it is to keep secrets these days. To begin with, some of the team were spotted on security camera footage in the hotel: Two were seen putting on disguises in a hotel bathroom, and two others hung out in the lobby in tennis clothes for hours on end.
Learn more about tension between surveillance and the rule of law.
Technology Aids in Surveillance
The assassins’ activities were also tracked through a series of transactions using prepaid debit cards. The operatives all used the same type of card, issued through a small bank in Iowa. They were also connected through phone records.
Another piece of the puzzle was the analysis of travel records. Dubai authorities searched their customs and immigration databases to identify anyone who entered Dubai shortly before the killing, and left shortly afterward.
Then, they cross-referenced this result against lists of visitors who were in Dubai during al-Mabhouh’s previous visits to the UAE. This created a target list of possible suspects, which could be matched against hotel registries. Video footage of check-in at the airport was then matched to faces and names.
Finally, the Dubai authorities publicly published on TV the passport photos of the suspects, leading to near-certain identification of the assassins. It isn’t just the Mossad that has such problems maintaining secrecy of a covert operation. Today, all spy agencies do.
How Cyberspace Helps
The development of technology has made it very difficult for an undercover spy to move around with a false identity. Too many trails in cyberspace can provide evidence that such an identity is a recent creation: a credit card issued very recently, the biometric data on the passport links to the person’s true identity in a database somewhere, and the claimed employment record can’t be verified.
All of these background facts are now subject to being researched further—and almost instantaneously—all thanks to the Internet. While some governments might think that’s a problem, some people might believe it’s a good thing.
The New Transparency
By now we all know how a team of U.S. Navy SEALs flew into Abbottabad, Pakistan, and killed Osama bin Laden. Before they did that, they practiced on a mockup of bin Laden’s compound constructed in secret by the U.S. government.
Well, maybe not so secret. It turns out that Microsoft’s Bing Maps application had a satellite picture of the facility online. Someone recognized it for what it was, and publicized it in October 2012, long after the compound had been destroyed, and bin Laden killed.
Learn more about the upside of personal data use.
Privacy’s Gray Areas
But, what if the picture had been recognized before the raid? How you feel about transparency might depend on whether you favor or oppose what it reveals. Privacy and transparency are two sides of one coin, and we associate very different values with each of them, depending upon how they’re applied and to what end.
Most of us neither want to live in a Panopticon world of one-way surveillance, nor do we wish to live in a world where some can live invisibly, possessing the Ring of Gyges.
Privacy requires a balance.
Common Questions about Transparency
The Ring of Gyges is a mythical magical ring that renders the wearer invisible. In Socrates’s Republic, Glaucon wonders what would cause a man to be just and virtuous if he had such a ring.
Too many trails in cyberspace can provide evidence that an identity is a recent creation: a credit card issued very recently, biometric data on the passport links to the person’s true identity in a database somewhere, the claimed employment record can’t be verified.
An example of using surveillance to watch powerful entities is the growing use of digital video to film police actions and document possible abuses.