Surveillance, Spectacle and the Panoptic State

Shortly after 9 p.m. on June 7, 2011, FBI agent Christopher Tarbell and his partner, draped in dark suits and bulletproof vests, climbed six flights of stairs in the Jacob Riis housing projects on the Lower East Side of New York City. The stagnant humid air on that 90-degree day hung over the agents as they approached apartment 6F. The agents knocked on the door. Hector Xavier Monsegur, the man the agents had followed for months, answered.

Hector Xavier Monsegur, AKA Sabu, who is allegedly the mastermind of hacking group,  LulzSec

Monsegur wasn’t a drug kingpin, an arms dealer, nor was he involved in a host of other crimes one would associate with an FBI raid on a housing project tenant in New York City. In fact, Monsegur was much worse in the eyes of the government. He was “Sabu” — the alleged leader of LulzSec, a raucous hacking collective that grew as an offshoot of Anonymous. A day before his arrest, Monsegur had logged into an online chat without hiding his IP address. Almost immediately, he was “doxed” or outed by a fellow hacker, his veil of anonymity stripped away as his name and address were posted online. Fearing that he’d destroy critical evidence upon being revealed, Tarbell, who had been watching Sabu closely, rushed to get his man.

Monsegur was accused of attacking the PayPal, Visa and MasterCard websites after those companies refused to process financial support for WikiLeaks. It was also believed that Monsegur led LulzSec attacks on Sony, the CIA, U.S. Senate and other international targets during LulzSec’s nearly three-month hacking rampage in the spring of 2011.

Despite the evidence against Monsegur and the trove of incriminating data available in his apartment, Monsegur wasn’t hauled off to a jail cell immediately. Instead, something more peculiar occurred. On June 8, less than 24 hours after Tarbell knocked on Monsegur’s door, Sabu was back online.

After being surveilled by the FBI, Monsegur quickly became the eyes for the FBI.

The Unblinking Eye: Surveillance and Solitude

Humankind has long been fascinated with the concept of an all-seeing being. The symbol of the watchful eye has existed since the earliest civilizations. The Eye of Horus or Ra, representing safety and protection, was an ancient Egyptian symbol; the Eye of Providence, or the all-seeing eye of God, became associated with the Christian trinity in medieval art, and later a Freemason mark; and the concept of taqwa, an Arabic word referring to God consciousness, within Islam similarly invokes a supreme being who watches all. These references to surveillance were usually the mark of an omnipresent being within a religious or spiritual context. That is, until the 1780s.

The omnipresent being left the realm of metaphysical spirituality and became institutionalized surveillance. As a result, the visible artistic rendition of the eye became irrelevant. Architecture took its place. The British philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham described his architectural theory in a series of letters written to his father starting in 1787. Bentham, co-opting his brother’s design, pitched the “panopticon” (pan= all, optic= seeing) ideal: “A new principle of construction applicable to any sort of establishment, in which persons of any description are to be kept under inspection; and in particular to penitentiary-houses, prisons, houses of industry, work-houses, poor-houses, lazarettos, manufactories, hospitals, mad-houses, and schools.”

Bentham proposed that all buildings containing many people who required constant observation be built with a central watch tower from which multiple hallways extruded. This circular design would put the watcher in the middle, surrounded by those who needed to be watched. The greatest advantage of this design, argued Bentham, was that it required fewer guards to watch over many subjects; these subjects were never unified as a whole, but kept separate. “[T]o the keeper, a multitude, though not a crowd; to themselves, they are solitary and sequestered individuals,” Bentham wrote.

The Panopticon is a type of institutional building designed by the English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century.  the concept of the design is to allow a single watchman to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) inmates of an institution without the inmates being able to tell whether or not they are being watched."  Source wikipedia
The Panopticon is a type of institutional building designed by the English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. the concept of the design is to allow a single watchman to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) inmates of an institution without the inmates being able to tell whether or not they are being watched.” Source wikipedia

One of the first institutions to incorporate ideas related to Bentham’s architectural philosophy was Eastern State Penitentiary, which opened in Philadelphia in 1829. Eastern State, which would become the model for over 300 other prisons, was the first to institute solitary confinement. Prisoners were sequestered from each other within a “hub-and-spoke” design; this central “hub” or observatory had seven protruding “spokes” or hallways that emerged from it. John Haviland, the British architect selected to design Eastern State, included two slits within each cell: peepholes allowing guards to peek into cells without being seen and a skylight in the ceiling, which was referred to as the “Eye of God.”

Though revolutionary at the time, institutionalized surveillance within a prison structure is hardly controversial. Prisons house criminals and criminals require monitoring. However, the danger in Bentham’s idea was evident in the wide gamut of institutions he proposed for implementing the panopticon design. The social implications of such were tackled by French philosopher Michel Foucault in his 1975 book, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. In a chapter titled “Panopticism,” Foucault stated that the main purpose of the panopticon was “to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.”

Surveillance in a panoptic state becomes so permanent in the minds of the surveilled that the subject fears being watched, even when he/she may not be, thereby ensuring the behavior demanded by authority, even in its absence. In turn, “the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary,” Foucault wrote. “The inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers.” Thus, the subject enforces its own obedience out of fear of being watched. Hence, the actual mechanism of power need no longer be tangible; it becomes an idea weaved into one’s social existence fueled by fear.

As Bentham suggested, the subject only needed to fear being watched. “Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied on. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at any moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so.” Therefore, “…panopticism constituted the technique, universally widespread, of coercion,” Foucault wrote. The all-seeing eye of surveillance, while heralded as a system to ensure safety, serves to simply enforce the rules of the watcher. Big Brother isn’t watching to make sure you are okay; he’s watching to make sure you do what he wants you to do.

In further dissecting the system of observation, Foucault states: “In order to be exercised, this power had to be given the instrument of permanent, exhaustive, omnipresent surveillance, capable of making all visible, as long as it could itself remain invisible … a faceless gaze that transformed the whole social body into a field of perception: thousands of eyes posted everywhere.”

Despite their theoretical writings, neither Bentham nor Foucault could have imagined that such “permanent, exhaustive, omnipresent surveillance” that remained unseen or an “invisible faceless gaze” could be developed and employed with such wide-ranging ease as conducted illegally by government organizations like the National Security Agency. This illegal system of surveillance enacted by the government today isn’t simply for protection or national security, as government officials are quick to defend, but rather to enforce subservient behavior within the citizenry.

Despite ex-NSA Director Keith Alexander professing that warrantless spying on Americans and various other countries’ citizens was necessary to counteract terrorism, and despite the oft-repeated false adage “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,” such all-seeing surveillance sooner or later serves a sole disturbing purpose: to coerce and maintain obedience to authority and the accepted norm.

Hacker looking directly to the camera

During a panel discussion at the New School in New York City in February 2010 called “The Recurrence on Limits of Knowledge,” Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame elucidated one step further the threat of constant surveillance: the vast collection of information is used as leverage to turn anyone into an informant. If you know people’s secrets, you can blackmail or otherwise coerce them to do your bidding.

The concept of creating informants is nothing new; in fact an old axiom maintains that police are only as effective as their informants. However, police usually use the criminal history of a person as leverage for coercing that person to become an informant. In contrast, government spying allows open access to the privacy of every person in the U.S. and the world, thereby turning an individual’s secrets or weaknesses, even in the absence of proof of criminality, into leverage to create informants.

By collecting information on everyone, the government now has unlawful influence over each citizen: the ability to blackmail a person for an indiscretion or criminal act in exchange for informing on others. This tactic is then used to crush valid dissent and criticism of government activity, by creating multiple watchful eyes that report back to the authority about behavior not approved by those in power.

If this power of surveillance was truly implemented for good, it would be a two-way street. Visibility and accountability wouldn’t only be necessary for the citizens; they would also be required for those in power. Instead, government spying is a one-way mirror. The government proclaims that it must search all data to protect the citizenry, yet the government goes to great lengths to prevent and prosecute any revelation of its own wrongdoing. The Obama administration has used the Espionage Act more times than all previous administrations combined to go after leakers and whistleblowers for releasing government information. Edward Snowden, who revealed illegal NSA spying by providing classified documents to journalists, cannot return to the United States out of fear of judicial revenge carried out by the government under the guise of stamping out treason. The irony of this situation is painfully evident: The government seeks to prosecute Snowden as a spy against his country for revealing the government’s unlawful spying on its citizens.

Furthermore, the government has invoked its state-secrets privilege to shut down civil court cases brought by plaintiffs to challenge government claims. The government asserts that such cases could reveal sensitive information, thereby mostly ensuring that court cases are rejected as the plaintiff would be unable to prove his/her case in the absence of such supposed “state secrets.” For the government to reside in secrecy while forcing surveillance upon its citizens is by design because revealing what is collected and providing transparency destroys the power dynamic. “One is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen,” wrote Foucault, describing the very essence of that dynamic.

However, despite the need for privacy protection and its role in our Constitution, a large portion of the public seems undisturbed by the evidence that their rights are illegally being stripped away. According to a June 2013 Gallup poll, 53% of respondents disapproved of government collecting Internet and phone data on citizens (compared with 37% who approved). According to a CIGI-Ipsos Global Survey on Internet Security and Trust, conducted in October and November 2014, more than 60% of respondents are concerned about police or other government agencies from their own country secretly monitoring their online activities. Still, little to no protest was raised when the U.S. Senate, on November 18, 2014, blocked passage of the USA Freedom Act, a bill that would have reined in the NSA’s surveillance program.

In theory, citizens are against the act of surveillance. In practice, they’ve grown culpable in the act. As more of the public is surveilled by government, more of the public is surveilling itself. The people are distracted in watching each other in a new sort of surveillance: a narcissistic and voyeuristic spectacle.

The Blinking Eye: Spectacle and Socialization of Social Media

In turning a critical eye on government surveillance, one must also reflect on the actions of the citizenry. Much of the public distracts itself for hours every day through social media. Research released by the Ipsos Open Thinking Exchange in 2013 showed that Americans 18 to 64 years old spend on average over three hours a day using social networks; it gets closer to four hours for the 18- to 35-year-old age group. Despite the positive role of connectivity provided by social media, it has also created an unintended and insidious consequence: We have become the bearers of our own surveillance.

Excessive use of social media has allowed us to self-publicize our most private thoughts and acts, turning these into content for mass consumption. Video and photographs are shared as easily as our thoughts throughout social media. The more images of ourselves we promote, the more we publicize our private selves. The growth of social spectacle encourages a self-created panopticon.


This system of spectacle as surveillance begins with a user posting content through social media. By projecting an image, a spectacle, of oneself to the public, the public is then empowered with the ability to surveil. Through a system of shares, likes, retweets and views, the public can authorize and define appropriate or acceptable behavior. This information is then internalized by the user to provide similar content for future postings, in hopes of being liked again — in essence re-creating behavior that is acceptable by those watching. If liked, the public’s surveillance enforces behavior the user initially projected; if ignored, the user must provide new content to seek approval. The user is now being watched and feels the need to provide behavior approved by the watcher. The public’s demands through reinforcement drive users’ behaviors.

A user’s need to be accepted is substituted for the prisoner’s fear of punishment. The watcher’s validation of the user’s behavior becomes the warden’s surveillance that confirms the accepted norm. Though in control of what is being seen, the user becomes the prisoner in this inversed, self-imposed panopticon. Whereas surveillance enforces a particular behavior by the few watching the many, spectacle enforces a particular behavior by the many watching the few.

In his article, “The End of Solitude,” published in the Chronicle for Higher Education, writer and former Yale English professor William Deresiewicz states that the “contemporary self” wants to be “recognized … connected … visible.” Deresiewicz points out that since the camera created celebrity and the computer created connectivity, the modern person seeks validation by being seen or acknowledged by others. “The great contemporary terror is anonymity,” he writes. “So we live exclusively in relation to others, and what disappears from our lives is solitude. Technology is taking away our privacy and our concentration, but it is also taking away our ability to be alone. … We are doing this to ourselves; we are discarding these riches as fast as we can.”

As a result, we have become the wardens of our own panoptic prisons. Every image we put out in social media — always for the express purpose of validation from our online “community” — is then liked or ignored by our peers. If liked, it reinforces the behavior associated with the image; if not, the uploader finds new ways to garner likes. This subconscious dance puts users in the middle of their own panoptic prison — others view and validate, forcing the user to adjust behavior accordingly. The system of likes has become the authority, and the user is imprisoned by the need to be liked.


Surveillance vs. Spectacle

Monsegur’s surveillance of the hacktivist community in which he was a prominent figure was extremely valuable to the government. At a secret bail hearing on August 5, 2011, Assistant U.S. Attorney General James Pastore told the court: “Since literally the day he was arrested, the defendant has been cooperating with the government proactively.”

In less than 24 hours, the powerful Sabu was turned into an informant. Since flipping, Monsegur has helped the government build cases against and arrest other online hacktivists, including up to eight LulzSec and Anonymous members, and is also suspected to have helped the FBI identify and catch Ross Ulbricht, the founder and maintainer of Silk Road, a deep Web black-market site.

Through Monsegur, the FBI was able to find and arrest Jeremy Hammond, a former co-conspirator of Sabu’s. Monsegur, at the behest of the FBI, encouraged Hammond to carry out cyberattacks targeting over 30 countries, including the U.K. and Australia, avowed allies of the U.S. On November 15, 2013, Hammond was convicted and sentenced to the maximum 10 years in prison for his part in hacking Stratfor, a global intelligence firm that carried out surveillance on political protesters for private and government organizations.

Hammond later released a statement challenging the government’s claims. Because Sabu had encouraged him to go after foreign governments, it was clear to Hammond “that the U.S. cybersecurity agenda is less interested in preventing attacks on our own soil than they are using the skills of rogue hackers to spy on valuable intelligence targets.”

Hammond’s words were later bolstered by an article published in September 2014 on The Intercept website by Glenn Greenwald. Quoting a secret 2009 report — obtained by Edward Snowden — from the office of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Greenwald discovered that “one of the principal threats raised in the report is a scenario ‘in which the United States’ technological and innovative edge slips’ — in particular, ‘that the technological capacity of foreign multinational corporations could outstrip that of U.S. corporations.’ ” The solution for this hypothetical threat was to use “a multi-pronged, systematic effort to gather open source and proprietary information through overt means, clandestine penetration (through physical and cyber means), and counterintelligence.”

On May 27, 2014, Monsegur was finally relieved of his duty as an informant. He was released from a courtroom in Manhattan after Judge Loretta Preska congratulated him for his “extraordinary cooperation.” Monsegur, who could have been sentenced to over 26 years in prison for his role in numerous cyberattacks, was, instead, given one year of supervised parole.

An Anonymous spokesperson, speaking to the Guardian newspaper after Monsegur was released, stated: “The FBI continues to use captured informants, who commit egregious crimes in pursuit of reduced sentences, for the sole purpose of creating ‘examples’ to frighten the public. They do this with the hope of pacifying online dissent and snuffing out journalistic investigations into the US government’s misconduct.”

Hackers, dissenters, protesters and agitators who depend on anonymity can be discovered and forced to inform on others. This is not a bad tactic when dealing with criminals — people doing illegal things shouldn’t be able to hide. Yet the government continues to use this surveillance-informant dynamic to hide its own wrongdoing — like in the prosecution and conviction of Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Bradley Manning, via her chats with Adrian Lamo, a known hacktivist — all while ignoring the same hacking and agitation committed by corporations, like Stratfor’s spying on protesters, and HBGary Federal, a technology security company that planned to go after and discredit Greenwald for his critique of illegal government actions. And, of course, the only reason we know private corporations are attacking citizens is because of anonymous hackers who have revealed the details of such activity.

Whether one sees Anonymous and other hacktivists as criminal agitators or principled protesters, the group’s statement regarding Monsegur and FBI informants is not debatable. The government has been using surveillance to spy on citizens and foreign governments, using information to create new informants, all while hiding its own illegal activity.

Despite mounting evidence of unlawful spying and coercive acts by the government, the majority of the citizenry is not alarmed enough to demand change or are even aware. The government’s broad and far-reaching surveillance program plays no role in the spectacle of our social lives. This dichotomy is best summed up in the words of author Neil Postman, who in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, compared the dystopian philosophies within George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World:

“Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

Ethika Politika
Ethika Politika

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture. … As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.”

Postman concludes his thoughtful comparison by imagining “the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.” Postman’s words were written in 1985. Thirty years later, it seems that both Huxley and Orwell were right. The government has followed the Orwellian route: shrouding actions in secrecy, limiting information, concealing truth and inflicting pain as a means of control (as evident in the militarization of police forces, endless wars and use of torture). The people, instead, have followed the Huxleian route: information and truth are not sought after, apathy and narcissism run rampant, trivial matters are discussed ad nauseum, and seeking pleasure and happiness is the primary goal. The government runs on fear; the people run on desire.

In an era where our rights to privacy and access to knowledge and accountability are eroding right before our eyes, it only makes sense that we stopped caring. There are just too many images on Instagram, videos on YouTube, posts on Facebook, and tweets on Twitter demanding our consumption.

We have distracted ourselves from our own destruction. The once competing dualities of surveillance and spectacle, fear and desire, privacy and publicity, are now working in tandem to fashion a new status quo, where the individual is subservient to a master of her or his own creation.

Yet, lest we forget, the masters we have created are ones we control. If government surveillance illegally continues to target all citizens instead of lawfully pursuing those partaking in actual criminal activity; if social media is harnessed for inane spectacle instead of empowered connectivity — like that which helped fuel the Arab Spring; if the government continues to abuse its power while the citizenry wallows away in vapid distractions, then we are solely to blame. If action and activism are now defined solely by sharing information on social media, then we have become apathetically content in our illusions.

As Foucault ends the chapter on panopticism in his book Discipline and Punish, he asks the reader to contemplate: “Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?” In the end, we are the wardens of our imprisonment and the prisons we have constructed are a reflection of the society we have created. To acknowledge the all-encompassing role surveillance and spectacle play in our society on a daily basis requires us to do what we’ve been practicing all along yet not actually achieving: opening our eyes and becoming truly vigilant.

This article appears in the Fall/Winter 2014/5 print issue of The Islamic MonthlyScreen Shot 2014-12-12 at 10.38.44 AM

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  • About the autor
    Obaid H. Siddiqui

    Obaid H. Siddiqui is a freelance writer and journalist based in Philadelphia. He is a contributor to the anthology “All-American: 45 American Men on Being Muslim.” He can be followed on Twitter @OhSiddiqui.

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    • Misha Fazal

      We have become wardens of our own panopticon prisons. What a sobering thought. Thank you for a substantive discussion on this subject. Perhaps our need to be social, without establishing relationships, and conditioning ourselves to remain relevant and ever present through social media are really our own prisons. I know that it has certainly started to feel burdensome to me.