Michel Foucault was a French social theorist that had many ideas that focused on power. One of his most interesting works was the panopticon. A panopticon is a structure that is most commonly associated with a prison. It consists of a round room with a tower in the middle that you cannot see in to. In the case of a prison this is used to control the inmates by making them unaware of when they are being watched. Foucault used the panopticon as a metaphor for disciplinary societies that want to control its people. To do this they do not need jail cells, instead they use constant surveillance by the use of cameras and other tools. They want to gain power by watching us so that we become more accepting of the rules. We do not want to break the rules because if we are seen then we can be punished.
When thinking about a panopticon like Foucault describes the first thing I think of is the United Kingdom. In the UK they have set up many cameras in city streets to monitor the public. These cameras have microphones so that they can hear people, and speakers so that they can talk back to people. There is also facial recognition software that can tell who you are when you are on camera. A ban on wearing hoodies and caps was also considered so that people could not conceal their identities while doing something wrong. If that is not bad enough they also wanted to put tracking devices on every car so that they could be tracked at any time. For a time citizens were also required to carry a national ID card that kept private information about them in a national registry. It had things like their fingerprints, facial and iris scans, and current and previous residences. It also kept a history of things like police records, medical history, and DNA structure. The national ID cards were used from 2006 until 2010 when a bill was passed that got rid of them and the data in the national registry. These forms of tracking and surveillance were supposed to be used to prevent crime and terrorism, but many felt like it was an excuse to gather information and keep control over them.
It is easy to see how the intense surveillance used in the United Kingdom is similar to Foucault’s ideas about the panopticon. In the panopticon you cannot tell if someone is watching you, and in the UK you never know if someone is watching you. There cannot be someone watching every camera that is placed on every street, but no one wants to take that chance. It will make most people afraid to commit crimes and maybe even afraid to talk about certain things in public. An example of how this is social control and not stopping terrorism can be seen in the Madrid train bombings. In 2004 a person was able to board a train using a state ID card, similar to the ones being used in the UK, and set off a bomb. The card held so much information about the person, but he was still able to get on and cause harm. While the constant monitoring might make some people feel safer I think that it is a violation of people’s privacy. You cannot replace police work with cameras because a camera will not stop something that is already happening. There are also ways around everything. If a similar idea was proposed in Chicago I know I would be against it. Bad things are going to happen, and if they are not out in the open they will be behind closed doors. We need to draw the line between freedom and security and remember that power goes both ways. Yes the government might have power over the people, but together the people have power over the government.