The 18th-century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham once designed a prison he called the Panopticon. The Panopticon was shaped as a cylinder, with cells radiating from a central guard tower. The guard tower was always to be dark, so that the inmates never knew whether they were being observed. Because prisoners could never see the guards, they would have to assume that they were always being watched. Bentham wrote that with this design the state could gain a “new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.”
Bentham’s dream lives on today. The 21st century could see all of society take the form of the Panopticon. Old methods of surveillance are being used on a scale and in places that would have appalled previous generations of Americans, and technologies are being developed that will allow the state to become an all-seeing eye. These trends, coupled with a democracy that appears to be dead in the water, are creating a perfect environment for the growth of a police state.
An estimated 300 million surveillance cameras have been installed around the world, in every conceivable public space. It is difficult these days to run an errand or attend a public event without someone monitoring your movements. Malls, schools, public transportation, and even highways are saturated with cameras. In a few years the surveillance camera could be relegated to a secondary role in Big Brother’s toolbox, however. Today new devices are being used that allow the state to watch citizens in a much more private and constant manner.
The most ominous of these technologies is the RFID, or radiofrequency ID, chip. RFID chips are tiny, about the size of two grains of rice, and were originally developed to function as a sort of sophisticated bar code and assist in logistics. The chip emits a signal that can be detected with the use of a reading device. Corporations such as Wal-Mart, Procter & Gamble, and Pepsi were the first to invest in RFID chips, but now next-generation technology, often referred to as the spychip, is being sponsored by the Department of Defense. The new chips will be small enough and cheap enough to be implanted in almost any conceivable product and will allow corporations and the state to globally track not only consumer goods but also the people wearing, driving, or working with those products. Military analyst John Pike has noted that with this technology, “Government would have a reasonably good idea where everyone is most of the time.”
The specter of state and corporate use of RFID chips to track individuals is already upon us. The Enterprise Charter School of Buffalo, N.Y., puts chips in student ID cards to track students’ movements. The corrections systems of Illinois, California, Ohio, and Michigan use chips to monitor prisoners under house arrest, and Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey has begun a pilot program of implanting RFID chips in patients so doctors can quickly retrieve medical information. Two corporations, VeriChip and Digital Angels, are developing chips that can be placed in the bodies of senile grandparents, difficult teens, or pretty much anybody who somebody feels needs to be monitored. It’s just a matter of time before somebody makes a case for implanting a chip in every American citizen.
There is little reason to believe that any government would limit itself to arguably legitimate or benign uses of surveillance. America has a long history of nefarious activities by the state against dissident and anti-capitalist groups. The FBI was founded in 1908 to destroy the Industrial Workers of the World, known by many as the Wobblies. The FBI greatly expanded its covert actions against American citizens with the COINTELPRO operations of the 1960s. Just about any organization that questioned the status quo was subjected to surveillance, infiltrated, or violently repressed. In 1975, a U.S. Senate Select Committee, headed by Frank Church of Idaho, was formed to investigate and stop abuses by the FBI, CIA, and Nixon administration. Today we are once again living in a Nixonian age, but it remains to be seen whether our political system is still strong enough to take on the threat of state and corporate surveillance.
If the state has a “reasonably good idea where everyone is most of the time,” it can hardly be said that we are free. Let us hope that the early 21st century is not remembered as the age when the American experiment ended.
Rod Helle teaches at Pleasant Plains High School. His last commentary, “Caging the beast,” was published in the July 6 edition.