A Panopticon is a circular building with an observation tower in the centre of an open space surrounded by an outer wall. This wall contains cells for occupants (for example, inmates in a prison). This design increases security by facilitating more effective surveillance. Residing within cells flooded with light, occupants are readily distinguishable and visible to a guard/official “invisibly” positioned in the central tower. Conversely, occupants are invisible to each other, with concrete walls dividing their cells.
In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault builds on Jeremy Bentham’s conceptualization of a panopticon as he elaborates upon the function of disciplinary mechanisms in the prison and illustrates the function of discipline as an apparatus of power. (Source)
An aspect of power is how do you know who is spying on you? How do you know who your real friends are? How do you know if you are on top? How do you even know who is on top?
Joseph Stalin knew he was in control of everyone in the Soviet Union because he knew that he was able to use the NKVD (his secret police) to control the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union) and he knew that he could use the CPSU to control the NKVD. He also knew there wasn’t any other power base.
Even still, to be certain he imprisoned and shot millions of innocent people. By doing so, he removed imaginary (and sometimes real) threats and, just as importantly, he proved to himself and others through mass murder (the ultimate crime) that he could do whatever he wanted.
Who controls the NSA? How many people have access to that data? The metadata alone will tell anyone who has access how everyone in the world is connected and to whom. There are several whistle blowers (probably including Snowden) who claim the NSA is also storing phone calls and other digital data.
Information, as Foucault knew, is the basis of power. The NSA has a massive amount of information and thus massive power, but the question fairly screams—Who is at the top of all that power? Who controls and has access to all that information? Who gets to see how the metadata fits together?
I doubt that in today’s world just one person is at the top. We know Congress is not, nor is the president. Does the head of the NSA or the CIA know who is on top? I doubt they are. Is there a group within those bodies that knows? If there is a secret group (not publicly known) that is on top, or thinks they are, they will be able to get a sense of who their competitors are by metadata analyses and by more direct means of spying.
But who may be spying on them? Is there another group within their group or outside of it that knows even more than they do?
Digital panopticism in today’s world implies the profound likelihood that there is more than one “observation tower” or group on top. This is a massive problem for those of us without any power, but it is also a deeply disturbing problem for those with power because none of them can ever be certain if someone is above them and who that might be.
Is that the core reason the spying grows and grows? Because, futiley, they have to spy more and more to be sure they are on top or to be sure they know who is on top, and yet they also know that they can never be sure.