The blind spot in the panopticon

New surveillance technologies may put us all under glass, but those responsible will have to take the consequences

Charlie Stross is a writer. You'll have heard of him if you read much about Linux, and you will hear of him if you read science fiction. He's in the middle of what NASA call a transfer injection burn, leaving behind the dirtball planet of computer writing for the intergalactic trade of SF novelist. He's sold eight novels of which one has been published, and if you think that sounds a bit odd you haven't read the novels.

As befits an SF author, Stross spends a lot of time running what-if scenarios through his head. One particular piece of pondering resulted in an essay, The Panopticon Singularity, where he looked at the current state of various technologies and came to a worrying conclusion: one day, everything we do will be so closely monitored and analysed that no misbehaviour goes unpunished by state machinery devoted to the automatic enforcement of all laws.

This is a logical extension, he says, of a proposal by 18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who suggested a prison arranged as a circle of cells around a tower. The guards lived in the tower: the walls of the cells facing the tower were glass, so the guards could watch the prisoners at all times without being seen themselves. This panopticon would prevent any misbehaviour, according to Bentham, because nobody commits a crime knowing -- or strongly suspecting -- that they'll be found out.

Stross' 21st-century glass walls are a mixture of the well-known -- cellphones, RFID, digital security cameras -- and the more esoteric, such as terahertz radar. It's a mark of how fertile this field is that despite him listing ten ways the state can watch you, there are at least another couple -- ultrawideband and miniature automated aircraft -- getting close to deployment since he started to write the article a couple of years ago. And, since the the realisation by the US and friends that the war against terrorism can be used to put in place loosely defined broad legal powers to grab data, conduct surveillance and generally make full use of all available information, it's hard to argue that these technologies will be used in this way.

As none of us ever lead blameless lives, says Stross, the end result will be to make us all prisoners -- some literally so, but everyone in constant fear of behaving in any way that may be thought of as out of line. It will be the ultimate police state, one where the inevitable inefficiencies of having humans run the show are removed and the calcified shell of arbitrary conformity sets solid around us. Not even the old idea of "They can't jail us all!" will help: with the power to check comes the power to change, and punishments exacted via bank accounts, access rights and state-granted privileges will be as automatic as pay-as-you-earn tax deductions now.

Chilling stuff, and not to be lightly dismissed. But there's a flaw in the analogy, one that may yet save us. In Bentham's vitreous world, the prison guards are exempted from the regime of universal observation: in Stross' singularity, they're part of the herd. In a police state, those who are part of the system have privileges of exemption, freedom to do the sorts of things the populace dare not. When the machinery is automatic, unbribable and universal, nobody gets off and everyone's watched. A system that efficiently gathers, collates and analyses data must also make it available -- and this is why there's a paradox, not a singularity, in Stross' panopticon.

For once it becomes difficult to do anything unremarked, once surveillance is a given rather than an exception, then the logic behind keeping official secrets becomes much harder to defend -- and the practice of keeping them becomes harder, too. The classic "What have you got to hide?" polemic that so often justifies yet another loss of privacy can be turned around: "Why are you keeping those secrets?" Or "If you believe in open government -- here's the key. Why aren't you using it?". Cheap, easy to deploy technology doesn't care who's running it, and although the civil service, judiciary and government may try for monopolies on data access, in any society with claims to democracy they cannot deny effective oversight. They try, my goodness how they try, but in the end the contradictions mount up and the questions become unavoidable.

By building the panopticon, therefore, the great bureaucracy of state control would be building a world without fudge, duplicity, secrecy or buck-passing. Such things are as necessary to the bureaucrats as blood is to Count Dracula, and the panopticon as welcome as a greenhouse for garlic. So the warning signs of singularity aren't that the technologies exist and are used, nor that they are used by those in power to watch those defined as worth watching: it's the refusal to allow the selfsame concepts to be used on those in power -- or even discussed. When that happens, it may be time to disprove that old saying about stones and glass houses.