Last Wednesday, thousands of workers, many of whom are affiliated with the Occupy movement, took to the streets of New York City to celebrate the international labor movement. I participated in the protests and was surprised that although the protests were largely peaceful, there was an extraordinary police presence. Despite the deployment of hundreds of officers to monitor the events, the NYPD also felt the need to employ helicopters as an enhanced measure of surveillance.
In midst of all the camaraderie, I could not help but feel dispirited, unnerved and atomized from the rest of the crowd because of the intense observation. It was as if I were in a modern version of what the 18th-century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham called the panopticon — a perpetual surveillance machine.
In the original design, the panopticon is a type of prison where one guard can see all the inmates from a single, central and hidden location. Because all the prisoners think that they are being watched all the time, this has a gravitational pull on their behavior — and out of suspicion and fear, the prisoners begin monitoring each other. After a certain point, it becomes unnecessary to have the guard at all.
Unfortunately, our society uses the panopticon model on a much broader scale — the monitoring of Occupy events is merely an instantiation of a deeply entrenched, institutionalized practice of surveillance. In the virtual world, users leave electronic footprints everywhere. We are under constant and permanent surveillance, and the identity of the observer is either ambiguous or completely unknown. This raises a more fundamental question about rights, specifically concerning the conflict between privacy and security and their roles in a democratic society.
The first obvious frontier of privacy is our body. If someone interferes with our bodily autonomy, we consider this to be an invasion of privacy. This is also why we tend to associate privacy with physical boundaries, both of our personal space and our homes. However, in the virtual realm, electronic footprints are difficult to conceal, and we are spied on almost in perpetuity. Proponents argue that such surveillance is innocuous, but I think it is entirely egregious.
Law enforcement is taking advantage of these new surveillance opportunities to extend its reach and, therefore, possibly abuse power. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently suggested that domestic drones are inevitable and that we should be expecting these unmanned flying machines in our cities soon. But aren’t the thousands of current surveillance cameras — which may also be abused— more than sufficient? It doesn’t seem that there is much rationale behind the security decision for the development and deployment of drones.
We then have to ask whether the government has been using tragic events such as 9/11 and the Boston bombings as pretexts for engaging in extraordinary means of surveillance, or if there indeed was a genuine security need for it. Perhaps it may be reasonable in that terrorism is an enhanced form of crime that demands immense crime-fighting measures, but what are the boundaries? Even if we accept the Hobbesian notion that the very nature of government activity is to preserve security, and by extension, engage in some form of surveillance, there should still conceivably be a point where government goes too far.
The real problem starts once the abuses of privacy are normalized into the culture. Certainly we will not say that because it is normalized to deploy very efficient mechanisms to torture people, to engage in genocide, to form concentration camps, these atrocities are then justified. We cannot extend the principle of “this is just the way things are and so I give up” to our ordinary lives — we need a sense of moral and ethical vigilance. It is worth fighting for the things you believe in as a matter of principle. And is this not the whole enterprise of being on the planet as a human being? We have a certain duty in trying to elevate the situation in which we somehow are involved in. The moment we no longer question and give in to a disciplinarian culture, we become a society that is antithetical to the idea of our constitutional culture, which is framed on the proposition that individuals have rights and behind the idea of rights are notions of rational agency — that we can think about things and make deliberate decisions about what is just and what is the good.
Edward Radzivilovskiy is deputy opinion editor. Email him at email@example.com