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Published on November 18th, 2013 | by Mark Bou Mansour
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Government Spying, Michel Foucault, and Why Your Smartphone Is Changing the Balance

With an unprecedented parliamentary hearing inquiring the heads of MI6, MI5, and the GCHQ taking place early this month, the issue of government spying on internet communication and personal mobile devices has taken centre stage on both the local and international stage. Although this debate has been heating up since Snowden blew the whistle back in June, recent revelation of joint USA-UK spying on German politicians and announcement of 34 terror plots in the UK being foiled over the past eight years by use of internet spying have emphasized the debate on foreign policy and terrorism security.

But what if you’re not a top German politician or not hatching a terrorist plan for the weekend with your friends on Facebook? Where would you fit in within this debate? Does the NSA’s and GCHQ’s spying affect you? Does our exponential increase in use of digital devices and social media make us more vulnerable or more powerful?

For those of us who have trouble silencing the little George Orwell in the back of our heads, the existence of an apparatus that could listen in on and access so much of our conversations and personal data is a little more than unsettling. Even companies like Google which have been providing information to the NSA under court order have spoken out against the NSA’s unauthorized access to Google’s databases. Along with concerns about risks to business for Google as a result of the NSA’s spying, Google law enforcement and security director Richard Salgado has voiced concerns for violations of citizens trust and privacy as well as concerns for a possible splintering of the net where internet access and communication will be restricted by geography in a bid to avoid US-UK spying. To put these concerns to rest, GCHQ director Sir Iain Lobban stressed during the parliamentary hearing to the public:

“We don’t want to delve into innocent emails and phone calls. I don’t employ the type of people who would want to. My people are motivated by saving lives of British soldiers on the battlefields, by finding terrorists. But if they were asked to snoop, I wouldn’t have the workforce. They’d leave the building.”

Simply, neither the work power nor the motivation exists to snoop on your daily internet activities –so long as stalking your ex is not an issue of national security. But is that enough to put such worries to ease? Can we really say that existence of these surveillance systems in themselves have no effects? Let’s turn to Michel Foucault’s writings on the panopticon to answer these questions.

French philosopher, social theorist, and hot poster star of every philosophy student’s dorm room wall, Michel Foucault discusses the relationship between surveillance and discipline in his influential book Discipline and Punish. To summarize key points relevant to us here, Foucault argues there has been a shift in the nature of power employed by political authority to control and discipline people. Whereas order was maintained in pre-modern times by making a spectacle of state power, such as public executions where all could witness the state’s power and legitimacy to punish and end life, order is maintained in modern times by people being watched and not the state.

Foucault uses the metaphor of the panopticon to illustrate what he calls the disciplinary power of the modern state. The panopticon was a prison designed by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham in which the prison cells and premises were structured circularly around a watchtower in such a way so that all prisoners were at all times visible to a watchman without being able to tell if they were being watched or not. Under this scenario, the consciousness of permanent visibility in effect becomes a form of power that dominates the individual not with chains but by inducing the individual to self-discipline. Disciplinary power in modern societies, argues Foucault, functions in the same way where the sense of being observed by the state disciplines and normalizes citizens, and so disciplinary power produces individuals that are obedient to the state.

Meaning, regardless of whether our emails are actively being read, the awareness that they can be read at any time –the existence of an ‘internet watchtower’ itself even if the work force may not be on-guard inside- is potential enough to induce everyday users to discipline their online activity and normalize their expressions over social media platforms. But is this new?

Well, no. For as long as recording technology and communication systems have existed, so have government efforts to monitor with them. Whether reading mail and wire-tapping or openly video-monitoring with security cameras, government agencies have constantly observed their citizenry. CCTV is the hallmark of this practice where we are aware, and at times take for granted, that we under watch yet do not know just who exactly –if anyone actually- is watching us behind the monitor as we make faces to the camera on the bus. If, then, government monitoring of citizens is not new, why is the revelation of government agencies monitoring personal internet activities shocking news? More importantly, why should it be?

The internet was believed to be capable of being used as a giant ‘blind-spot’ –spaces where users could choose to anonymously express themselves and communicate with others. Whether that meant blogging openly about personal issues, ranting about some politician, bad-mouthing your boss, or compiling a search history that you would take to the grave with you, the internet was supposedly a space where, if you chose to, your identity could not be seen and so was a space where you did not feel compelled to self-discipline and normalize yourself.

On the other hand, if you choose non-anonymity, the internet could be a merciless public archive of every mundane thought you had and every meal you ever ate with which to agonize your friends with. The point here isn’t the agony of choosing the right filter to capture the magic of that cup of coffee you just bought, but that contemporary internet services and smart devices allow us to record our experiences and share whatever we like to a degree unlike before.  We are no longer just being monitored but are also monitoring and documenting our surroundings. While this has resulted, freakishly yet somehow understandably, in a lot of cat videos, it can also allow for citizens to record and monitor their governments on a scale drastically much larger than ever before.

This potential is realized in a video filmed by a woman in Saudi Arabia who used her camera phone to fend off religious police in a mall. The religious police had deemed the woman’s nail polish as inappropriate public attire and tried to have her ejected from the mall accordingly. By filming the religious police, and threatening them with posting the video on Facebook and Twitter, she bravely resisted their orders and forced them to leave her alone –which is nothing short of revolution in Saudi Arabia.

In a truly “what the Foucault moment”, the internet and proliferation of smart devices have expanded the gaze of the watchtower from the citizenry to include the state as well. Whereas just over 15 years ago the UK government refused to acknowledge the existence of MI6, two weeks ago the head of MI6, along with heads of MI5 and the GCHQ, sat before the public answering questions about the works they do in confidentiality. Because these new technologies not just allow us to monitor and document our surroundings but provide the possibility of doing so anonymously, we can see the potential for a world where citizens become the unseen guard in the watchtower observing the government at all times –a scenario which WikiLeaks can be seen as an early realization of. Imagine a world where every act of political corruption and state injustice was made easily visible to the citizenry without the leaker being judged a criminal and forced into hiding. Would this usher in complete accountability? Would the world be a safer place?

It is the possibility of this world, and the answers to these questions, that are under threat by government agencies spying on internet communications. At the heart of this debate, we find ourselves at a crucial moment where the old relationship between political authority and the citizenry as observer and observed, as watchguard and suspect, is being challenged.

Where do you stand on this debate? Do you agree that new technology is challenging the relationship between the state and citizenry? Should it be challenged? Or maybe you think a Foucaultian approach isn’t the best way to look at this debate? Let us hear your thoughts on twitter: @catch21p.

Interestingly, if the citizenry share in on monitoring, it also follows that they share in on disciplinary power. How then do new digital devices and internet services influence what we accept as ‘normal behaviors’? With social media being a big part of most of our lives, do we normalize our behaviors and activities in ways that we can share online? Can we (finally) explain duck-face etiquette this way? Is social media changing the behaviors and norms of politicians and the political process? Again, tell us what you think!

Food for thought:

An introduction to Foucault’s philosophy and his major concepts:

A great three-part series on social media through a Foucaultian lens:

On the issue of CCTV and its effectiveness:

On panopticism and camera phones’ potential to monitor law enforcement:

A deeper introduction to and overview of Foucault’s major theories:

Foucault M. (1980). Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews & Other Writings 1972-1977. Ed.


Major works by Michel Foucault:

Madness and Civilizatin: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason

Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison

The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, The Will to Knowledge


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About the Author

Mark Bou Mansour

has studied critical political theory and philosophy over the course of his undergrad and Master’s program, effectively turning his brain into mush. He now finds everyday things utterly fascinating and everywhere he looks he sees grand historical forces at play contingently shaping our worlds. Recently, he has taken a liking to shiny things like smartphones, computers, and web 2.0.

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