Computers, Information Technology, the Internet, Ethics, Society and Human Values

Philip Pecorino, Ph.D.

Queensborough Community College,  CUNY

Chapter 6    Privacy

Case-Presentation

PANOPTICON

Companies who conduct sales over the internet collect data concerning their clients and plan to use the information in a number of ways.  Several companies owned by the same parent company can combine their information to develop a more complete profile of their customers.  The data gained this way may also be sold to other companies also creating profiles of present or potential clients or customers.

Government collects data concerning citizens and residents and stores it. Under certain circumstance governmental agencies can cross check the various data base and do so at the federal, state or local levels.

Sales (item, time, location and amount) are recorded by businesses and if the sales are with a credit card then the card holder information is also available to the credit card companies along with the purchases made.  Traveling on highways and using electronic passes records the times and location of vehicles. Purchases of tickets for train or boat or plane travel also provides information to those with access to those data base.

Computer controlled cameras record actions in stores, banks, teller machines, work settings and open space surrounding buildings and public thoroughfares and intersections.  They are set up in homes and on property surrounding homes.  Much of the information located in the digital recordings can be accessed from a distance. It is possible to conclude that in advanced technological societies computer technologies have made it possible to observe people in nearly every location in which they may be or pass through during their day.  The cinema has presented us with dramatic instances of monitoring devices being placed by individuals, governments agencies, and criminal enterprises into homes without the occupants' knowledge.

Some have even placed cameras into lavatories and locker and changing rooms for personal use or for sale to those taking pleasure from the invasion of the private spaces of others, particularly when engaged in what are considered very private acts.

The public has received images on television and in films of government agencies and others skilled with the technologies being able to retrieve all forms of information indicated above concerning individuals and to do so in a rather short amount of time and then to assemble it all in single electronic files to be shared with others and to have additions made to them as needs arise to do so

The amount of information being recorded in digital form and being made available to information networks and systems is already beyond imagining and growing larger each year.  The kinds of information being recorded has also expanded as have the ways in which the information is being combined and cross referenced by private, commercial and governmental agencies..

Many have observed that private, commercial , criminal and government actions may have created a situation akin to that of the  PANOPTICON (Full Text) which was proposed as a model prison by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), a Utilitarian philosopher and theorist of British legal reform.  READ for sketch and comment:

"The Panopticon ("all-seeing") functioned as a round-the-clock surveillance machine. Its design ensured that no prisoner could ever see the 'inspector' who conducted surveillance from the privileged central location within the radial configuration. The prisoner could never know when he was being surveilled -- mental uncertainty that in itself would prove to be a crucial instrument of discipline."-at  http://cartome.org/panopticon1.htm

Reflections on such a state of affairs raises important concerns over the consequences for individuals and groups when they believe that the are being observed at all times or nearly at all times and in all places.

Are people as free to speak their minds when they believe they are being watched and recorded?  Are groups free to form and to carry on discussions and debates when they think that they are being observed and their communications recorded and passed on to others?  Are people as able to form relationships that are personal if they think they are being watched all the time?  Can the availability of all forms of information about individuals be of assistance or an hindrance to the formation of personal relationships?

The Virtual Panopticon. Describes a virtual panopticon constructed in the Internet-standard Virtual Reality Mark-up Language (VRML) and contains some background information on Jeremy Bentham's original vision.

Escaping the Panopticon: Protecting Data Privacy in the Information Age. A student paper from Georgia State University College of Law.

Surveillance and the Electronic Panopticon. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In the The Virtual Community   by  Howard Rheingold READ  Chapter Ten: Disinformocracy the section titled   Caught in the Net: CMC and the Ultimate Prison

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Web Surfer's Caveat: These are class notes, intended to comment on readings and amplify class discussion. They should be read as such. They are not intended for publication or general distribution. ppecorino@qcc.cuny.edu                @copyright 2006 Philip A. Pecorino                       

Last updated 8-2006                                                              Return to Table of Contents