Panopticon .. that’s a new word for me. It is satisfying to say and particularly in the context of the area of automatic facial recognition (AFR), gratifying to learn about.

I was drawn to the Wikipedia page on the Panopticon by this article on Medium by a contributor Meltem Demirors.

The panoptican is a type of building and a form of control. Jeremy Bentham, a social theorist in the 18th century, came up with a design for a prison whereby all the inmates could be observed by a single watchman. As stated in the Wikipedia entry:

Although it is physically impossible for the single watchman to observe all the inmates’ cells at once, the fact that the inmates cannot know when they are being watched means that they are motivated to act as though they are being watched at all times. Thus, they are effectively compelled to regulate their own behaviour.

The use of AFR is a form of panoptican. The threat of observation and monitoring is bound to influence how we regulate our behaviour. There are a multitude of protests happening right now – how will the increasing (and currently unregulated use) of AFR in public spaces impact on people’s desire to be counted in the future?

Demirors speaks of the necessary privacies that we should demand in the face of pervading surveillance.

These are:

  1. Privacy in Economic Interactions, meaning who we send money to, how, when, in what amount, and why is something we have a right to keep private to ourselves and the recipient
  2. Privacy in Movement, meaning we should be able to move about physical, digital, and virtual space with anonymity, and we should be able to enter and leave spaces, whether in real life or online, without giving out identifying information
  3. Privacy in Communications, meaning we should be able to conduct conversations with certainty that they will remain private, and that we should be able to abstract our identity from our communications both in the physical world and online

I would add a fourth perhaps.. Privacy in Protest, meaning we should be able to attend a gathering with like-minded others to raise awareness on a critical issue, and that we should be able to do this without fear of our biometric information (or our children’s or young people’s) being added to a database for purposes beyond our knowledge or control.

The protest, the peace gathering, the vigil, the action – all forms of action which are there to empower people to stand up and speak out on behalf of others, could be made impotent under the threat of surveillance and its unknown implications.