Visibility and Invisibility of The 21st Century Surveillance with Reference to Foucault

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About this sample


Words: 2102 |

Pages: 5|

11 min read

Published: Oct 25, 2021

Words: 2102|Pages: 5|11 min read

Published: Oct 25, 2021

Punishment has always been a method to show the dominance of the powerful over the weak. But punishment is not complete without surveillance. So a question automatically arises, what is surveillance? Surveillance is like a regulation, a constant power working over each and every person, watching their each and every move and trying to assert power over people. But Foucault will take a different approach, his idea of surveillance gets a perfect shape when he connected his idea with Jeremy Bentham’s hypothetical prison - The Panopticon.

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But Foucault notices a very interesting shift of perception in the 20th Century prison system apart from the idea of the Panopticon. “What is punished is no longer the crime but the criminal”, in other words, unlike the pre-modern times, Foucault observes a new practice of the direct categorisation as a criminal, instead of investigating the crime, the person is ranked according to the severity of the crime and is branded as a criminal, Foucault describes it as “normalizing judgement”. And since the person is already looked upon like a criminal, he or she will be under a “pervasive control” of the authorities. But with the concept of surveillance, comes the Panopticon. Panopticon is an architectural concept created by Bentham, who proposed an idea of a circular prison with a guard tower in the centre of the prison. Now the catch is, the guards inside the tower would be able to look into each and every cell but the prisoners won’t be able to see the guards. Now, this method is no doubt very economical but its very sadistic as well, in the sense that the prisoners will have a constant anxiety of being watched, which Bentham thought will lead to Self surveillance. That is, since the prisoners will suffer a constant fear of being watched, they will look after themselves since they will feel the existence of the higher power constantly, observing their actions. Foucault found it to be a perfect example of “Pervasive control” and a perfect condition for structural and psychological violence which will force the prisoner to go through “inner change”

In this Twenty-first century, we see the addition of technology in this play. As more of the information is becoming free for the public through the internet, a lot of visibility of the surveillance is lost in this virtual world as well, which made up of nothing but numbers and algorithms. Panopticon is not confined to the circular prison and a guard tower in the center anymore, in fact it is everywhere now, on the lamp posts, walls , your laptops and even your phone acts like a device for surveillance. The problem which is faced in this recent scenario is the inadequate emphasis on technology as a major factor in this sinister plot of oppression. Foucault emphasizes more on the notions of oppression rather than taking account of the technology used at that time. “There can be no doubt that digital surveillance has the same normalizing effects, sometimes. But, there can also be no doubt that in some ways, digital surveillance acts quite differently than Foucault’s original thinking on this subject.” The problem is that surveillance is not anymore confined only in prison systems. In this recent scenario - it has spread all over the world like an epidemic. Another problem of Foucault’s understanding of the Panopticon style of surveillance is that, in a Panopticon, prisoners are at least aware that they are being watched, but in the modern Panopticon, people don’t even get the clue that they are being watched or not and hence there is no notion of self surveillance or in other words, “In Foucault’s world, the visible presence of the technology, and therefore, the constant awareness of potential surveillance, resulted in an internalization of the perceived judgement and normalization of behavior. Prisoners and citizens became more docile as they never knew when they were being watched. Digital spaces, on the other hand, actually encourage users to break from normality, fixed identities, and the ordinary. All the while, this seemingly safe space for exploration and anonymous play is under constant surveillance. Our searches, our texts, our emails, and our web histories are archived in proprietary servers for long periods of time, and potentially incriminating. Without the constant presence of the surveilling technology, digital surveillance can work more like entrapment; luring subjects to behave freely and then capturing this free play, sometimes fantasy play, for inspection by others.” This notion is actually true because NSA (National Security Agency) Chief, while having an argument confirmed that they do not spy on “normal” people but they do watch ‘normal’ people with ‘abnormal’ behavior. Which leads to another important development in the world of criminology is the concept of “potential suspect”. It does have a similarity to normalizing judgement, except the targeted person necessarily does not even have to commit a crime of any kind, the person might be a distant relative who has no immediate connection with the actual criminal but still he or she would be a “potential suspect”, and the person won’t even realize the conviction. In other words, the person is not being judged or categorized on the parametres of crime but they are being judged on the parameters of probability of he or she committing a crime, which is actually calculated by Artificial Intelligence of NSA, which is actually a step further, the notion of ‘normalizing judgement’, if we have to see the worst, then, the intelligence services don’t track the person anymore, they track their cell phone or the SIM card, terms which dehumanize the whole scenario, in other words “Foucault’s concept of surveillance ,fails to directly engage contemporary developments in surveillance technology”. Twentieth century surveillance was definite far reaching but the twenty first century surveillance is not only far reaching but because of decades of data gathering it is deep rooted as well, which is compelling us to see, Foucualt’s concept in a different light.

This deep rooted digital surveillance was introduced soon after the 9/11 attack, as a safety measure. Rather to create a database of every person on Earth, alive or dead. But to gather information NSA, CIA, and FBI needed warrant from legal Courts and hence there was the emergence of FISA court that is Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the catch is, that it is not a public court hence there was no way that any person except the president, intelligence officials and Congress, knew about this program, their argument for this was that they do not want to alert their suspects, but the question is - what if every person on earth is a suspect? Then, how ethical is it? To understand how deep rooted this problem surveillance is, one must go through the details of surveillance methodologies and also to understand, how much is it far from Foucualt’s original ideas and how far are people’s freedom and sovereignty is being violated?

After Snowden’s whistleblowing, Guardian Newspapers first came out with the news of Verizon. Verizon is software which gives NSA and GCHQ(British intelligence) the full access to a person’s personal calls, texts, numbers and even details of conversation, location, IP address. Then, there is PRISM. PRISM is a database which gathers its data from uplink transfers that is emails, social media sites and even manufacturing companies like Apple. Privacy is just a fallacy because most of the phone making companies installed an in-built ‘Back-door’ which will allow the intelligence services to gather unlimited amounts of data even without the knowledge of the user. Then there is ‘XKEYSCORE’ which is a kind of search engine. Now, Google is a search engine too, but it has limitations, ‘XKEYSCORE’ on the other hand gives you an absolute control, where the person can go through anything such as phone records, personal emails, facebook etc. The effect of this is that the intelligence services and make ‘hops’, that is according Guardian, if NSA is tracking one shady Iranian Banker who has ties with ISIS, they will look into his family and connection and again, will look into other connections and in no time from the collection of one person’s data, they would be able to collect 2.2 million people’s data. In the Indian aspect, we saw the introduction of Aadhaar, which allowed the government to increase its power of surveillance using biometric scans, in other words, not only, now the government has our life details but also our biometric prints all stored in one database. Another major problem is the selling of the data to private companies, right now Aadhaar has become an important document for anything, from SIM card to Flight Tickets which is actually commoditizing our personal information and all of that information and hence the person can be tracked on the basis of one's daily life activities and purchases. Aadhaar is considered to be a blunder since India does not have any solid data privacy or protection laws, making surveillance easier.

Internet was created for anonymity, and it does give the user a certain level of anonymity with a sense of equality where one won’t be bothered about their race, skin color, and religion. But with the upgrading of technology and introduction of social media, the person started becoming less and less anonymous since “Family members, neighbors, colleagues, and other offline acquaintances also communicate with each other on the Internet”. “Panopticism found breeding ground on the Internet and social media studies” except it is Panopticism in reverse. In the original concept the guards in the tower could look into the cells for surveillance but now “the controlled is alone in the middle of the “prison” and controllers are all around her or him.” in other words - “the controlled – the user – is alone in the middle of the prison – the sociotechnical system – and the controllers – the other users – are all around her or him.” No doubt that governments do illegal surveillance but in this cyberspace we often give up our very personal information on social media sites, maybe while making an account on facebook. A person’s name, age, sex, phone number, email ID preliminarily. Then after the account is created the facebook AI tells us to ‘personalize’ our account and hence we post pictures, qualification, religious views, political views, our likes and dislikes - all of it on a social networking site. We barely understand that we just fell for voluntary servitude, in other words we are as guilty of losing our privacy as the companies taking advantage of our ignorance. In fact, “In this respect, the centralization of data, materialized by the construction of massive data centers, corresponds to concrete technical decisions, public policies and commercial norms. Not only do most internet users leave their opened emails, their pictures, videos and blogs with perfect strangers, but the very objects that assist them in their daily tasks emit geo-localization points and other parcels of data which can be algorithmically correlated to produce individualized patterns and profiles”.

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“Computer screens became the new one-way glass and Venetian blinds, and the power of the panopticon shifted from its basis in an overt presence to one of subtle social control.” After the whistleblowing of Snowden the public came to know about the watchtower. But because of this, the whole internal power structure was destabilized and had to rethink on the policies. The notion of self surveillance became more traditional, since people now know about the reach of the government, people can self surveil themselves regarding the data and be careful about it. Even though, Foucault’s understanding of surveillance created the base for the modern understanding of surveillance yet in this modern era, his ideas do not completely resonate, especially when it comes to the methodology of the surveillance even though the effects of the surveillance remains more or less remains the same, hence when it comes to visibility of the recent surveillance system, one will definitely argue that this modern system is more invisible rather than visible.


  1. Gutting, Gary (2005), Foucault: A Very Short Introduction, New York: Oxford University Press.
  2. Chapman, Daniel E.; Maudlin, Julie Garlen; and Sandlin, Jennifer A., 'Digital Surveillance: Foucault, the Internet, and the Meaning for Democracy' (2014). Georgia Educational Research Association Conference. 60.
  3. Manokha, Ivan. 2018. Surveillance, Panopticism, and Self-Discipline in the Digital Age. Surveillance & Society
  4. Alberto Romele, Francesco Gallino, Camilla Emmenegger, Daniele Gorgone. 2017. Panopticism is not Enough: Social Media as Technologies of Voluntary Servitude . Surveillance and Society, Surveillance Studies Network.
  5. Reigeluth, T. 2014. Why data is not enough: Digital traces as control of self and self-control. Surveillance & Society.
  6. Sheridan, Connor,CT 2016, 'Foucault, Power and the Modern Panopticon'. Senior Theses, Trinity College, Hartford.
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Visibility And Invisibility Of The 21st Century Surveillance With Reference To Foucault. (2021, October 25). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 30, 2024, from
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