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Snowden-Chomsky-Greenwald on Mass Surveillance

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At around an hour and 32 minutes in, Glenn Greenwald, in the context of discussing the then-live controversy between Apple and the FBI (over installing a 'backdoor' in the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino killers), cites a book clichély familiar to most every American high school student: George Orwell's 'Nineteen Eight-Four' (1949). Gleenwald admits that he "misremembered" its lesson:

I remember the warning of Orwell being that if you live in a society where you're always being watched, that's when you lose freedom. And so you raise '1984' and people would say, 'No, our society's different, we're not all being watched, we're not all having our emails read and telephone calls listened to'. But I actually went back and read '1984' when I started doing this work, and the world that Orwell was warning of was not one in which we were all being watched. It was a world in which we could be watched at any moment. And Winston Smith, the narrator, said that this monitor that was in your home - you never knew if it was on, you never knew if actually anybody was ever watching you at all, what you knew is that you could be watched at any moment, and therefore you had to act as though you were being watched, which meant, people who know they could be watched act obediently and compliantly and submissively and without dissent. That is the precedent the FBI is trying to create in this FBI/Apple case, is that there can never be a moment when you are able to communicate beyond the surveillance arm of the United States government.


Whether we agree to heap such significance on that now-discarded case, this Orwellian feature of surveillance is identical to what Foucault refers to as "the major effect of the Panopticon" on page 201 of 'Discipline & Punish' (1975). He writes that the individuals being watched within Jeremy Bentham's infamous architectural device - whether prisoners, patients, students, or workers - "should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers."

To achieve this, it is at once too much and too little that the prisoner should be constantly observed by an inspector: too little, for what matters is that he knows himself to be observed; too much, because he has no need in fact of being so. In view of this, Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so. ... He who is subjected to a field of visibility and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.


(Edit: italic-emphasis mine, and apologies for not correcting masculine pronouns.)

Edited by Lazzarone

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