• William Thompson

COVID-19 and the Panopticon: Does Mass Surveillance Threaten Democracy?

The panopticon has been the paradigmatic symbol of modern disciplinary power since its conception in the 18th century. The prominent philosopher Jeremy Bentham created the panopticon as a form of penal architecture where inmates, inhabiting cells situated in a circular ring, were subject to the all-encompassing eye of a monitor located in a central control tower. The power of this design lay in the fact that although the single monitor could not possibly observe all the inmates at once, the possibility of being watched compelled the inmates to regulate their own behaviour. The panopticon, as Michel Foucault identified in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975), is the canonical metaphor for the modern surveillance state. A state where the citizens are subjugated, much like the prisoner, to the omniscient eye of the state, forces them to sacrifice their autonomy in the face of incessant surveillance. In this manner, the individual becomes merely an ”object of information” for government authorities, whose thoughts and actions are regulated such that they can never be “the subject of communication,” capable of expressing their identity and opinions in the public sphere. The principle of the panopticon is inspection, and its product is “the docile body:” the bodies of the prisoners, workers, school children, and soldiers who are subjugated to make them easier to control and thus more “useful” to society.


CCTV is perhaps the most obvious symbol of the modern panopticon, where the monitoring of the public’s behaviour can take place from a centralised location. In the name of security, and for the public’s safety, this kind of mass surveillance appears to be justifiable, and the laws surrounding CCTV, enshrined in the Data Protection Act of 1998, work well in defending the privacy of the individual. For example, CCTV operators are prohibited from sharing their footage unless asked to do so by the police and must avoid recording conversations between members of the public. This act was updated in 2018 with the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which gives regulators the power to issue huge fines to those who fail to comply. In the UK penalties are decided by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) which is an independent authority whose modus operandi is to “uphold information rights in the public interest.” GDPR states that those who commit “low-level offences,” such as using photographs of children without their consent, are subject to fines of up to £10,000,000, whereas “higher-level offences” such as failing to inform individuals’ that their data is being used can incur fines of up to £20,000,000.


However, the panopticon of the state becomes malignant when the government begins to covertly extract individuals’ private data, as uncovered by the Snowdon leaks in 2013 which revealed how the British signals intelligence agency, known as the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), was surreptitiously mining data from the public’s telephone calls, web browsing history, social media accounts, emails, and text messages. Furthermore, data has become an indispensable resource for political entrepreneurs in recent years, whose acquisition has precipitated the ascension of populists, such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, to political supremacy. For example, alongside Cambridge Analytica (a British political consulting firm), Trump’s media team were able to obtain personal data from over fifty million Facebook profiles, thereby enabling them to send personalised advertisements which supported Trump’s bid for presidency. Personal privacy is thus no longer sacrosanct and has been perennially attacked in the name of public security, national security, and most recently for political expediency.


In the wake of a global pandemic the panopticon looks to expand again, this time under the guise of "public health." According to The Economist, COVID-19 has seen the most dramatic extension of state power since World War II. States have shut down entire sectors of the economy, sealed people indoors, and have promised perhaps the most comprehensive package of economic support the modern world has ever seen. However, a more insidious impact of the pandemic is the rapid extension of surveillance.


In South-East Asia, through the clever use of technology, countries have been extremely effective at controlling the virus. For example, in China, a health code system has been introduced which can be accessed through popular apps such as “WeChat” (an instant-messaging platform) or “Alipay” (an online payment app), who have more than 900 million users respectively. Individuals complete a health survey and are assigned one of three colours: “green” if they are safe to travel, “yellow” if they should be quarantined, and “red” which notifies the police if individuals are caught in public. These codes are shown to security guards at checkpoints in public spaces such as transport stations, hotels, and restaurants, before allowing individuals to proceed or restricting them from travelling. Furthermore, facial recognition technologies have expanded and are now being used to detect if individuals’ have elevated temperatures or to spot citizens not wearing face masks in public. In Singapore, an app has been introduced called “Trace Together” which documents where citizens have been, records their disease status, and identifies with whom they have come into contact. Meanwhile, in Taiwan, the government uses data from cell-phone masts to identify if someone has breached quarantine rules. If so, perpetrators receive a warning text message and authorities are alerted which, in many cases, incur fines ranging from US $3,333 (GBP 2,400) to US$ 333,333 (GBP 24,000).


In many countries in Asia, there is the temptation to make these surveillance measures a permanent feature of life, particularly as China has proved so effective in eliminating the virus. In fact, if history tells us anything, it shows us that often the measures introduced in the midst of a crisis tend to become indefinite, such as the counterterrorist legislation that was introduced in the wake of 9/11. For example, the United States of America Patriot Act: Preserving Life and Liberty was introduced by Congress in 2001 to allow intelligence agencies to share information and use surveillance measures to investigate potential terrorist threats. Moreover, with growing pressure on the economies of the western world, Europe and North America are trying to suppress the spread of the virus by implementing similar systems to mimic the surveillance techniques used by the technocratic and totalitarian states of South-East Asia.


In the United Kingdom, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (TBI) has been at the forefront of calls to introduce mass surveillance, arguing that the COVID-19 pandemic requires the public to accept a level of intrusion that would normally be unacceptable in a liberal democracy. However, such surveillance must only be a temporary solution to the crisis if Britain is to avoid slipping into the rising global trend of anti-democratic practices. According to the US Freedom House think tank, 2018 marked the thirteenth consecutive year of deteriorating freedoms across the globe. Exacerbating this trend, Britain proposes the introduction of a centralised form of mass surveillance, which, contra independent contact-tracing apps such as those developed by Apple and Google, will allow Britain to store its users’ data indefinitely, which the National Health Service has ambiguously stated will be useful for “further planning,” Britain therefore appears to be repackaging mass surveillance in the name of "public health" presenting it as a social good. Given Britain’s questionable history on surveillance, this portends visions of Bentham’s panopticon writ large.


Nevertheless, by no means will the expansion of surveillance after COVID-19 render Britain a totalitarian state, unlike China. Democratic values, no matter how limited, are fundamentally embedded in the government institutions and in the people of the country. The main issue is that Britain is entrenching its panopticon, which is already vast as a result of the Investigatory Powers Act of 2016. This act enables the British government to bulk hack the devices of entire communities if some members of the community are considered to be a security threat, as well as to acquire data of website history, text messages and emails. Britain is therefore reinforcing the worrying trend of data becoming a resource as imperative to governments as oil is to the economy. "Public health" is merely the latest façade in a long stream of mass surveillance and data mining policies that have been introduced, in the name of various social goods, to manipulate the behaviour of the everyday citizen. Thus, one may paraphrase Chomsky’s famous aphorism and argue that data is to democracy what the bludgeon is to the totalitarian state.