Why should we care about whether we’re being watched or not? Most people would think that they’re not doing anything wrong but there are so many statutes and laws on the books they probably are. The National Security Agency (NSA) has run roughshod over our basic liberties, especially after 9/11 and the passing of the USA Patriot Act. According to the American Civil Liberties Union “The result is unchecked government power to rifle through individuals’ financial records, medical histories, Internet usage, bookstore purchases, library usage, travel patterns, or any other activity that leaves a record.”
Surveillance orders can be based in part on a person’s First Amendment activities, such as the books they read, the Web sites they visit, or a letter to the editor they have written. This has serious implications for libraries. Under the USA Patriot Act, if a library receives a formal request they are under a legal obligation to disclose the relevant information available. Additionally, under the act’s provisions, librarians who receive an order are prohibited from discussing the issue with anyone other than a library’s attorney and any staff who assist in fulfilling the request. Anyone who violates this could face severe penalties.
The U.S. Depart of Justice has put up a handy page that offers highlights of the law here.
Welcome to Panopticonia
“. . . supervision, control, correction—seems to be a fundamental and characteristic dimension of the power relations that exist in our society.” —Michel Foucault
The 18th century English philosopher Jeremey Bentham came up with a design for a circular prison, (the Panopticon), that in the 1970s the French philosopher Michel Foucault used to illustrate that constant surveillance can be used by the state as an means of control and disciplinary power. There are some theorists who reject Foucault’s premise and think we’re in a post-Panoptic world. One such argument is from the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman who posits that we’ve moved beyond Panopticism to seduction. I see that as just another tool in the surveillance arsenal, (albeit a subtle one). Ubiquitous video cameras, smart phones and tablets that double as tracking devices, incredibly sophisticated tracking software—surveillance has become so pervasive that we’re not living in a post-Panoptic world but pan-Panoptic one. Besides for all this surreptitious surveillance most of us are willing participants in the amassing of all this information. Through Internet outlets such as social media and consumer sites we’re happy to share information globally that previously would have been private or shared with just family or friends.
The enormous blanket of surveillance extracts a huge toll on us. Manipulation and distortion of news, self-policing and censorship of news organizations, threats to freedom of expression—these are all things that have been enforced since the law went into effect. This reinforces a Panopticonic ideal that whether you’re being watched or not you assume you are giving the watcher, (i.e. government), total control. A recent example of this: the writers’ organization, PEN American Center conducted a survey, Chilling Effects: NSA Surveillance Drives U.S. Writers to Self-Censor, which found a large majority of its members deeply concerned about the extent of government surveillance. Like the canary in the coalmine, if artists, writers, and journalists are feeling uneasy what are the implications for the rest of us?
The clip below is an apt visualization of our sense of fear and frustration in the face of this incessant surveillance. In this, is the final scene from Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film The Conversation, Gene Hackman plays a surveillance expert who finds out he himself may be under surveillance. He sets out to find the bug, destroying his apartment in the process. Not finding anything he ends up sitting in the wreckage playing his sax . . .