At the end of the year, the Snooper’s Charter will enter into law in the UK. This will make your web history available to almost fifty different police forces and government departments, force internet service providers to keep a record of all websites you visit for up to a year, oblige companies to decrypt data on demand and grants security forces the power to hack into your device on demand. This is the biggest attack on online privacy in any democracy. You may think that it is no big issue; only criminals should be worried, that you have “nothing to hide”. If that’s true, please leave your online account usernames and passwords in the comments section. But also let me try to explain why that mentality is potentially part of the problem. I will have to talk about Foucault but if you bear with me, I promise to link it all in with Santa Claus.
Bentham imagined a structure by which people were placed in cells. They could not see their cellmates but one guard could see them at all times, although it was not clear when they were being watched. They also didn’t know who was watching them. Because of this, the cellmates would behave well at all times, passively, rather than actively behaving well only when they were sure they were being watched. He called this structure the Panopticon. Foucault built on this. He saw it as a structure that went beyond controlling action as something that changed the behavioural nature of the individuals in the cells. Through the knowledge that they may be being watched, the cellmates would change their nature. The cellmates would actively control themselves, becoming both the prisoner and the warden. Through controlling the way they behaved, the Panopticon changed the actual individuals, ensuring that power was asserted even if no one is asserting it.
Both Bentham and Foucault were writing in a time without the internet. Because of this, they used a structure that only observed the actions of the individuals. I don’t know about you but my internet use does not reflect just my actions or even just my intentions. It is a scattered history of my thoughts. If I want to know about something, I will Google it. The history follows the path of my thoughts, not the path of my actions. So the thought of intelligence agencies being able to at any time having access to my history terrifies me. They won’t just be observing my actions, but they will be observing my thoughts. This would be like a Panopticon on steroids, the result being that not only will my behavioural nature change, but my very thoughts will. I will avoid searching for everything I think about, only searching for those things that won’t get me into trouble. My thought process will eventually change, making me more supplicant to the desires of whoever wields power, less likely to criticise them for fear of my thoughts being used against me. We have never been closer to a Thought Police.
The Stasi’s mission statement was to ‘know everything’. The very idea of one entity knowing everything should terrify you. In Narcos, Pablo Escobar was introduced as someone who was powerful precisely because he knew everything about the soldiers blocking his path. Santa Claus knows whether you have been naughty or nice, making sure children behave well so they get presents. And these are just actions. God knows everything, even thoughts, and he terrifies millions of people into acting moral lives. The Stasi would have salivated at the technologies of surveillance that Chairman May has introduced, as they would have known how beneficial it would have been in controlling the population. Let’s give Chairman May the benefit of the doubt and imagine she won’t exert power in a way that restricts our freedom of thought. Now imagine if someone was elected into power, who didn’t like gay people and decided that being gay was devious product of capitalism. Someone like Fidel Castro, for instance. Imagine being afraid to explore your own thoughts because you thought that someone may be watching you and that that someone had the power to persecute you. You would be imprisoned in your own mind. Imagine if someone decides that environmental protesters are a danger to law and order and that they had to be stopped. Now, they could go beyond undercover cops and let these activists know their thoughts are being tracked too. If they think the wrong way, they will be persecuted. The margins of freedom are tiny when a power can hack into your thoughts. Not having anything to hide just means your behaviour has fallen into line with the will of the watcher. If the watcher’s will changes, you may soon have something to hide.