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Will “Persistent Surveillance” Turn U.S. into a Panopticon?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Disturbing revelations about the breadth of spying by the U.S. government on its citizens and allies continue to emerge. In a recent post, I suggested that U.S. security officials never abandoned the concept of “Total Information Awareness,” a program for intensive digital spying proposed and ostensibly withdrawn by the Pentagon shortly after 9/11.

Another Pentagon phrase that keeps popping up in my head is “persistent surveillance.” I first heard this term while researching “The Drones Come Home,” an article for the March issue of National Geographic Magazine. Predators, Global Hawks and other unmanned planes, or drones, were enabling U.S. armed forces to carry out continuous, 24/7 visual, infrared, radar and electronic monitoring of large regions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As this 2011 Pentagon report states, persistent surveillance, which like Total Information Awareness was inspired by 9/11, “facilitates the prediction of an adversary’s behavior and the formulation and execution of preemptive activities to deter or forestall anticipated adversary courses of action.”

Incorporating data from conventional aircraft, satellites, balloons and towers as well as drones, persistent surveillance allows U.S. armed forces to predict enemy attacks and coordinate counter-strikes with greater precision than traditional methods.

Such surveillance can also help identify perpetrators of past attacks. For example, if militants blow up a U.S. convoy with an improvised explosive device, persistent surveillance data allow investigators to watch the whole plot unfold in reverse and track perpetrators back to their hideouts. Persistent surveillance turns an entire city into the equivalent of a convenience store monitored by security cameras.

One of the most detailed, candid discussions I have found of persistent surveillance is a 2009 master’s thesis by Christina Fekkes of the Naval Postgraduate School. Fekkes began her paper by recalling the proposal of 18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham to create a “panopticon,” a prison whose inmates are monitored so thoroughly that they do not even contemplate misbehaving.

Fekkes writes: “The ideology behind panopticons was not fully appreciated during Bentham’s time. Ironically, two centuries later a parallel ideology of persistent surveillance is eagerly being sought by military strategists. Information gained through the use of persistent surveillance is believed essential for U.S. forces against adversarial challenges faced in twenty-first-century warfare.”

As Fekkes and other analysts note, current persistent surveillance is far from perfect. Defense contractors are hence eagerly developing methods to make persistent surveillance systems cheaper, more user friendly and adaptable for different applications, such as border patrol and law-enforcement.

As I mentioned in a post last February, the Obama administration has also taken various steps—including proposed relaxation of federal aviation regulations–to make it easier for U.S. law enforcement agencies to deploy drones.

Do all these trends mean that persistent surveillance, developed by U.S. armed forces for fighting wars abroad, will eventually be applied to U.S. citizens as well? Are we all going to be living in the Pantopticon? Just a few months ago, I would have dismissed this prospect as implausible, but now I’m not so sure.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Chryses 7:07 am 07/2/2013

    If you care about this issue, VOTE!

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  2. 2. PeterOss 1:03 pm 07/2/2013

    Is this something which we, the people, have any say in, or control over? I certainly hope so, but am not confident about it. I don’t want to live in an environment where I am constantly surveilled. I’d rather accept a marginally higher risk of terrorism at home. Indeed, there’s little evidence that the surveillance is essential to its prevention, but it brings us a little closer to the Stasi era of East Germany. I, for one, am trying to convince my representatives to turn Bluffdale into condos.

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  3. 3. Krulwich 1:33 pm 07/2/2013

    It goes even further. A colleague of mine in 1995, Ed Gottsman, predicted what he called the “collective panopticon,” where in the then-future (our “now”) there would be so much personal recording going on that there would be no need for a centralized panopticon, the combination of massive numbers of personal recordings would create a collective panopticon. His words at the time (remember this was 1995) were “we don’t need to worry about Big Brother, we need to worry about a million Little Brothers.” Prophetic words for 1995.

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  4. 4. drafter 2:44 pm 07/2/2013

    It’s interesting how this article ties in with the other article on this site about not apologizing and they use Paula Deen who apparently said something bad over 20 years ago but is just now suffering the consequences of those comments. I would say we have already reached Panopticon. Everything you have said or will say, will be used against you when we see fit to.

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  5. 5. Chryses 5:50 am 07/3/2013


    “Everything you have said or will say, will be used against you when we see fit to.”

    And yet YouTube, Facebook, and the other social media are wildly popular. People want to have their cake and eat it too.

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  6. 6. Von Stupidtz 3:00 pm 07/6/2013

    Panopticon!!!…..Looks like the “secret society of women trying to control the world” has taken over.

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  7. 7. PassingFancy 4:30 pm 07/7/2013

    I wonder how many more thousand innocent people will have to die in terrorist attacks before some other people recognize that providing for the common defense precedes all the amendments to the U.S. Constitution, and that it – “provide for the common defence” – has not been amended.

    No Right is Absolute.

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  8. 8. bucketofsquid 6:01 pm 07/11/2013

    The Constitution also provides the over-riding right to forcibly overthrow the US govt. if it becomes oppressive and begins to oppress it’s citizens by violating the Bill of rights or other components of the Constitution. Fortunately this whole issue was overblown in the early reporting.

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  9. 9. dubina 3:24 pm 04/1/2014

    Peter Oss wrote:

    “I don’t want to live in an environment where I am constantly surveilled.”

    What will the Internet of Everything be but that?

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