Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The panopticon society

In addition to inventing the ethical system of utilitarianism, English philosopher Jeremy Bentham designed a prison, the Panopticon, which allowed every prisoner to be watched at all times by a guard they could not see (and did not even know was there), creating a "sentiment of an invisible omniscience". Now the UK seems to be trying to turn its society into a panopticon. They already have more surveillance cameras per head than anywhere else on the planet. Now they're planning to use them to track everyone's travel:

The police are to expand a car surveillance operation that will allow them to record and store details of millions of daily journeys for up to five years, the Guardian has learned.

A national network of roadside cameras will be able to "read" 50m licence plates a day, enabling officers to reconstruct the journeys of motorists.

Police have been encouraged to "fully and strategically exploit" the database, which is already recording the whereabouts of 10 million drivers a day, during investigations ranging from counter-terrorism to low-level crime.

Full and strategic exploitation means data mining. Not only is there enormous potential for abuse - e.g. police officers snooping on their families - there is also enormous potential for false positives. And in a surveillance society on edge from the threat of terrorism, that means tragic consequences. Meanwhile, law abiding citizens will have their every movement stored for five years, just waiting for a broke administration to sell the data to Americans for marketing purposes. That is if they don't just lose it...