An Age Without Privacy: Keeping Democracy Alive in the Panopticon

By Firmin DeBrabander


NEVER ONE TO shy from ambitious political plans, China is undertaking a vast program to closely monitor and influence the behavior of its billion- plus citizens. Such are the intents of its Social Credit system, which, as the name suggests, grades citizens on their lifestyle choices, and rewards—or punishes—them accordingly.

Partnering with financial services and telecommunications companies, who are principally responsible for collecting the data that will be analyzed, the Chinese government has decided on five factors that will determine citizens’ scores: where they live, if they have good credit, and if they honor contractual obligations.

Additionally, the system will gauge citizens’ trustworthiness and diligence. As one official explained, “Someone who plays video games for ten hours a day [...] would be considered an idle person [...] Someone who frequently buys diapers would be considered as probably a parent, who on balance is more likely to have a sense of responsibility.”[1] The government will also grade citizens on their relationships: do they associate with known ‘idle’ persons? Are their friends delinquent on loan payments? If so, this will detract from their Social Credit score; they should urge their friends to change their behavior—or shun those people altogether.[2]

The Chinese government justifies this program on the basis of efficiency and keeping track of, or controlling, a massive, increasingly wealthy, and potentially unruly population. The Social Credit system will expedite financial transactions, but is also a cost-effective way to keep citizens in line—far less intrusive or overtly oppressive than installing police on every corner of the land, peering into every bank account and bedroom. Indeed, the government anticipates that citizens will monitor and discipline themselves—and one another. People with higher Social Credit scores will be offered a host of conveniences, like renting cars without leaving a deposit, faster check-ins at hotels—or a more prominently featured dating profile online.[3]

Data collection will be augmented by a vast network of interconnected security cameras across public and private spaces. Armed with facial recognition technology, Chinese authorities will be able to pick out and follow the activities of every single citizen. Or at least, that is the hope. The government has already deployed this technology at busy intersections, where it captures the faces of jaywalkers, and broadcasts their names on large screens in an effort to shame them.[4] No doubt this will go into their Social Credit portfolios.

Jakub Geltner,  Nest 05 , 2015. Urban space installation. Courtesy of the artist.

Jakub Geltner, Nest 05, 2015. Urban space installation. Courtesy of the artist.

Again, the Chinese government aims to inspire citizen collaboration in its facial recognition system, which it has dubbed “Sharp Eyes.” On their home devices, citizens will be able to access footage from the vast security camera network, and are urged to relay suspicious behavior to authorities, who will then identify the suspects in question. Such collaboration will likely be reflected in one’s Social Credit score, demonstrating trustworthiness and diligence, and a desire to correct society more broadly. In an ominous, and perhaps telling twist, the program’s name is derived from Mao Zedong’s favored slogan, “the masses have sharp eyes,” where he urged people to spy on one another, and effectively transmit government terror.[5] Now, however, China seeks to influence citizen behavior by linking it to incentives that abound in a capitalist economy—and supercharge it.

It is easy to worry about the prospects of individual freedom in such an environment. Doesn’t it make you downright paranoid to know your every purchase and habit—if you buy too much alcohol or junk food, or play video games too often, simply cross the street carelessly—is watched and graded, and could hurt your Social Credit score? Or worse? Surely the Chinese government is not beyond that, seeing as it routinely locks up journalists and political prisoners on dubious pretenses. What if you happen to frequent a coffee shop where known protestors and dissidents also assemble, and the security camera catches you smiling at them—are you an associate, spies might wonder?
It’s hard to say, or know, how the system will be deployed, especially
if untrained citizen spies are also at work. Fear and ambiguity are very effective incentives for keeping people in line. And the government makes
the surveillance easier to swallow— and submit to—by highlighting the conveniences on offer.

Americans might pat themselves on the back. We would never tolerate being monitored and graded and prodded in this manner. But privacy is thoroughly routed in the United States today as well, and in ways chillingly reminiscent of the Chinese experiment.

For one thing, the US has a “higher per capita penetration rate” of surveillance cameras than China.[6] And corporations and law enforcement are already busy developing and deploying facial recognition technology. Airports use it to scan the faces of passengers boarding flights, and the US military, with Google’s help, works to incorporate facial recognition technology in drone surveillance.[7] Citing moral concerns, one startup rejected police and military applications for the technology, opting instead to work with automakers that want to read drivers’ faces for signs of fatigue, and “consumer brands that want to know whether people respond to a product with joy or disgust.”[8]

Jakub Geltner,  Nest 06 , 2015. Urban space installation. Courtesy of the artist.

Jakub Geltner, Nest 06, 2015. Urban space installation. Courtesy of the artist.

And it turns out we already have a rather elaborate Social Credit system afoot. Numerous companies, like retailers, online lenders, and data analytic firms, are busy composing “E-scores” for each of us. They are informal markers of creditworthiness, cheaper and easier to get than a FICO credit score—and which one commentator dubbed “sloppy substitutes” for official credit scores.[9] E-scores are inferred from various data points that our digital spies assiduously and voraciously collect, including our web browsing behavior, our purchasing habits, and our home address (to see what neighborhood we live in). On the basis of this data, corporations may be more or less inclined to do business with us, market to us, or offer us promotions. Naturally, critics complain, E-scores are not wholly fair or accurate indicators, and they invariably favor the rich and punish the poor. And there is reason to worry that they will be used in more expansive, speculative fashion, too, leading spies to draw inferences on our character. Companies already look to official credit reports, if available, to determine if we are hirable or worthy of a promotion.[10] One lauded startup, the online lender Affirm, even studies our “activity on Facebook and Twitter, frequency of mobile phone calls and text messages” to determine creditworthiness.[11] What does the company believe this data reveals about us? Perhaps that we have a good job—and are diligent workers, resisting the lure of frequent social media use. Affirm, like the Chinese government, is also interested in the company that we keep. One technology executive sought to allay concerns about Affirm’s model of snooping and grading: you could “see an analysis of the data sources and how they affect your credit score,” he said. “Once you’ve reviewed the data, you can decide on whether to change your behavior or change your data.[...][You] might decide to unfriend a person who is dragging down your social credit score.”[12] Note the paradoxical reasoning here: this technology makes you autonomous— to limit yourself and curtail your behavior.

Jakub Geltner,  Nest 06 , 2015. Urban space installation. Courtesy of the artist.

Jakub Geltner, Nest 06, 2015. Urban space installation. Courtesy of the artist.

Michel Foucault would hardly be surprised by this spin on surveillance. It echoes his warnings about the immense power of “panopticism”— literally, being watched everywhere and all the time. Foucault traces the emergence of this notion from the thought of eighteenth-century reformer Jeremy Bentham, who designed a panoptic prison where inmates’ cells would be watched by a shrouded central tower. Not knowing for certain if or when they were watched, to what end, and by whom, Bentham claimed the prisoners would effectively watch—and discipline—themselves. He harbored grand ambitions for his idea, and believed it could be transmitted to great effect across society: “Morals reformed—health preserved—industry invigorated— instruction diffused—public burthens lightened—Economy seated, as it were, upon a rock—the Gordian knot of the poor-law not cut but untied!”[13] And indeed, Foucault details the many institutional incarnations of the panoptic schema in the nineteenth century, from hospitals to factories to schools. Under the guise of lightness, tearing down walls, opening up structures, workers and students were subjected to monitoring—and disciplined themselves. Panopticism was, in Foucault’s estimation, the ideal mechanism for expanding centralized power in a democratic age. For, it controls without controlling: not knowing exactly who is watching, when, and to what end, people adjust their behavior as they think necessary—of their own accord—and still feel free and self-determining.

Perhaps because surveillance operates in hidden ways, and leaves us convinced we are still free, it is hard to convey its inherent danger. This was apparent in the tepid public reaction to Edward Snowden’s revelations of government spying in 2013. Critics hyperventilated over reports that the US government had been caught red-handed, violating civil rights and spying on the home population. This is the act of despotic regimes, or governments bent on autocracy, pundits complained. Such an immense store of intimate, personal information lends the government an intolerable degree of power—and if there is anything our founders warned of, it is tempting central government with such power. Americans were not impressed, however: a study noted that only a third of those familiar with Snowden’s revelations were motivated to improve privacy measures as a result.[14] Three years later, another report found that people were more worried that national security programs did not go far enough in fighting terror, and were less concerned about civil rights protections.[15]

Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who helped Snowden publish his report, sought to articulate why Americans— indeed, all democratic citizens— should properly fear government surveillance: “Only when we believe that nobody else is watching us do we feel free—safe—to truly experiment, to test boundaries, to explore new ways of thinking and being, to explore what it means to be ourselves. For that reason, it is in the realm of privacy where creativity, dissent, and challenges to orthodoxy germinate. [...] Mass surveillance by the state is therefore inherently repressive.”[16] Democratic citizens must be able to experiment with all manner of ideas, even those deemed unsavory or offensive by the status quo.

Indeed, such were the beginnings of many civil rights movements. We do not know where expansions of liberty will take us; in the aftermath, they seem natural and inevitable. But desegregation and marriage equality started with discussions and ideas that the majority would have happily crushed underfoot.

This is because, in a democracy— lacking certain civil rights protections—the majority can turn tyrannical, John Stuart Mill argued. Greenwald’s argument evokes Mill, the philosopher principally responsible for laying out the central formula of liberal democracy: individual citizens must be allowed to pursue happiness however they see fit, provided their pursuits do not harm or infringe on others. “Over himself, over his own body and mind,” Mill insisted, “the individual is sovereign.”[17] There are three components to individual liberty, in Mill’s assessment: liberty of conscience, liberty of taste, and freedom of assembly. In his view, the first deserves utmost protection, because the other freedoms rest on it, but also because liberty of conscience is a delicate flower. Individuals will too easily submit to group pressure— and democracy suffers. In a famous argument oft repeated by our Supreme Court, Mill maintains that heretics are not the ones principally harmed through censorship, but the rest of us: “Who can compute what the world loses in the multitude of promising intellect combined with timid characters, who dare not follow out any bold, vigorous, independent train of thought, lest it would land them in something which would admit of being considered irreligious or immoral?”[18]

Timidity, manipulation, conformity— even oppression. These are the results, many warn, of widespread surveillance. And indeed, it is hard to design a more fearsome, impressive panopticon than the digital universe, where we are watched on numerous fronts, and throughout our various communications and transactions. Foucault could hardly imagine a more effective system for prompting us to curtail our behavior. Consider: I might know I am watched online—but by whom? And for what exactly? It’s hard to know—accordingly, I better watch everything I do and say. I better watch what I say about terrorists online, for example—do I seem too sympathetic to them? Do I consort with suspect chat groups? Do I too frequently visit Al Jazeera, or other news sources that are less condemning of so-called terrorists? And I should certainly watch what I buy: if I search for books on Hezbollah, and also happen to buy some combination of fertilizer and nails from Home Depot, will the NSA become suspicious?

Jakub Geltner,  Nest 01 , 2015. Urban space installation. Courtesy of the artist.

Jakub Geltner, Nest 01, 2015. Urban space installation. Courtesy of the artist.

And yet, there are reasons to suspect these defenses of privacy. For one thing, we hardly seem so chastened by pervasive surveillance. We certainly don’t behave as if we felt pressured by online spies. As proof, one only needs to survey the social media landscape, where people are prone to sharing personal details and opinions that might otherwise be embarrassing or shameful. In fact, this is often cited as one of the most remarkable fruits of digital communications: we feel liberated to say whatever is on our minds, no matter what it reveals about us—no matter if it offends, or gets us in trouble (as it frequently does).

Mill might be relieved. Doesn’t this seem evidence of enduring freedom of conscience, since we feel empowered to speak our minds forcefully, randomly, even wantonly? Doesn’t it appear that our individual zones of liberty remain uninterfered with in some essential way? However, this is unclear—precisely because it is hard to determine exactly what constitutes such interference.

Isaiah Berlin says as much about Mill’s theory, which he deems an ideal example of negative liberty: I am free to the extent that I am left alone; I am free to the extent that a zone of personal liberty is observed and respected, which is not interfered with. The problem, Berlin noted, is to understand what exactly amounts to undue interference—or interference of any kind. When is my personal life—my freedom of conscience—intruded upon, pressured or influenced? The boundary between interference and non-interference, or between acceptable and unacceptable interference, is porous and vague.

When it comes to digital spies, for example, what constitutes intrusion? When I see them, and feel their direction? When I merely imagine them and their influence? When I guess what they want—and I’m wrong? Online retailers would like to manipulate my buying habits, critics warn. Closely following my history of purchases, Amazon alerts me to things I might like to buy next—things I didn’t even know I wanted perhaps. Is this undue interference? Or masterful marketing, for which I might be grateful? Some advertisers follow me around on the web; their promotions pop up in a variety of venues, which I might not even notice, and may operate on me surreptitiously. Is my zone of liberty interfered with in this case? Is it interfered with in such a way that I am less free to think and do as I wish, but am instead co-opted to act as outside forces want?—contrary to my own desires? Not necessarily. Whether I am susceptible to interference, this depends in no small part on other, deeper resources, which might enable me to resist outside pressure, or succumb to it—resources that are supplied by and in the political culture at large.

Berlin points to examples of Puritan Calvinists in Scotland and New England: “[T]he evidence of history tends to show that [...] fiery individualism [grows] at least as often in severely disciplined communities... as in more tolerant or indifferent societies.”[19] We must consider other resources when assessing individual liberty. Providing and protecting a mere negative space where people can be free—like privacy—is insufficient if citizens are not prepared to act like free individuals in consequential ways.

We might rightly worry about how citizens are nourished and trained for liberty in twenty-first-century America. Barely half the electorate exercises their liberty to vote—in a good year. And voting is but a meager expression of political liberty, as Thomas Jefferson saw it. Liberty is better measured by habitual political assembly and deliberation, such as he saw in New England townships.[20] It is marked by how citizens work for or think of the common good, as opposed to merely their own interests, and make sacrifices for the former. On this account, Americans fare poorly. It is for this reason that we should principally fear the assault on privacy.

Jakub Geltner,  Nest 03 , 2015. Urban space installation. Courtesy of the artist.

Jakub Geltner, Nest 03, 2015. Urban space installation. Courtesy of the artist.

Because privacy is a “dead man walking.” Sacrificing privacy is the price of entry to the digital economy, and the thought of foregoing that sacrifice is a non-starter for most people. Can we really expect average citizens, in China, the US or elsewhere, to revert to a cash economy, where they might conceal their identity, their opinions, their lifestyle choices, but lose out on a host of conveniences that facilitate our personal and professional lives? It seems impossible. Some might hope that legislators and corporations can agree on reasonable privacy protections. It is unclear that this will improve anything—or for long. Consider that the favored approach of privacy regulations thus far is to vest more power in individual consumers, and enable them to better protect their privacy. This is hardly a serious or long-term solution, seeing as individual consumers are the ones throwing privacy away to avail themselves of digital wonders. Individual consumers are precisely the problem. And there will be no shortage of said wonders to seduce them.

Privacy is principally an individual right and freedom, but, as John Dewey noted, individual citizens are powerless on their own. There is no guarantee that they will be free, or that they will know what to do with their freedom. Citizens, Dewey maintained, are only formed, motivated and directed by larger associations of which they are part. Associations are essential for channeling citizen power so that it can take on mightier entities and forces. And, learning to negotiate differences within associations, and cooperate with people from diverse backgrounds, Dewey held, these are key democratic talents learned in assembly. Not the privacy of one’s own home. China knows this—and reveals the principal democratic response for an age without privacy.

China’s penchant for censorship is well known, exemplified by its “Great Firewall” online, which bars mention of politically sensitive topics or events, like the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests of 1989. But it seems China is engaged in less censorship than many have thought. In a recent study, researchers found that Chinese censors “were not suppressing criticism of the state or the Communist party,” but only “posts that had any potential to encourage collective action”—for or against the state, mind you.[21] In a way, this makes sense: Chinese authorities should be happy to hear people speak their minds; that way, they will get a better sense of the political and cultural winds, so to speak, and avoid rude surprises—like the Tiananmen Square protests.

But it is important to dwell on what Chinese censors abhor above all: the possibility that the people might organize. Why? One researcher explained it thus: “Once the people learn to mobilize, even if they do so to support [the government], who knows what they will try next.”[22] When the people build common bonds, assemble in public, and discover the thrill and the possibilities of expressing their collective will, this is the start of determining their own destiny. This is power, and this is liberty.

Consider one iconic image the Chinese government bars from the internet at home: the man staring down a line of tanks at the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. He did not do this alone, of course, though visuals can be deceiving. He was emboldened by masses of protestors accompanying him, just outside the frame of the picture; this one man, facing a line of tanks, epitomizes the power of confident assembly.

It is also vague and imprecise, Berlin points out. How can we ever know our privacy is inviolate? How can we defend such a virtue with any certainty? Luckily, privacy is not so essential to political liberty after all. Liberty is better served, promoted, and protected when citizens assemble and organize. This, the essence of democratic action, according to Dewey, nourishes a culture of freedom, which will help us resist the many digital spies who wish to control us.

  1. Rachel Botsman, “Big Data meets Big Brother as China moves to rate its Citizens,” Wired (October 21, 2017). ernment-social-credit-score-privacy-invasion.

  2. Botsman, “Big Data meets Big Brother.”

  3. Botsman, “Big Data meets Big Brother.”

  4. Paul Mozur, “Inside China’s Dystopian Dreams: A.I., Shame and lots of Cameras,” The New York Times (July 8, 2018). business/china-surveillance-technology.html.

  5. Simon Denyer, “Beijing bets on Facial Recognition in a Big Drive for Total Surveillance, The Washington Post (January 7, 2018). https://www.washingtonpost. com/news/world/wp/2018/01/07/feature/in-china- facial-recognition-is-sharp-end-of-a-drive-for-total- surveillance/?utm_term=.adccf03dea09.

  6. Denyer, “Beijing bets on Facial Recognition.”

  7. “How much Artificial Intelligence Surveillance is too much?” Voice of America (July 3, 2018). https:// gence-surveillance-is-too-much-/4465586.html.

  8. “How much Artificial Intelligence Surveillance is too much?”

  9. Cathy O’Neil, Weapons of Math Destruction (New York: Broadway Books, 2016), 144.

  10. O’Neil, 148.

  11. Andreas Weigend, “Our personal data is never going to be private again. We can work with that.” Quartz (January 28, 2017) our-personal-data-is-never-going-to-be-private- again-we-can-work-with-that/.

  12. Weigend, “Our personal Data is never going to be private again.”

  13. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, Trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 207.

  14. Bernard Harcourt, Exposed (Cambridge, Massa- chusetts: Harvard University Press, 2015), 166.

  15. “Majority views NSA phone tracking as accept- able anti-terror tactic,” Pew Research Center (June 10, 2013). majority-views-nsa-phone-tracking-as-accept- able-anti-terror-tactic/.

  16. Glenn Greenwald, No Place to Hide (New York: Picador, 2014), 174.

  17. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (Charleston, South Carolina: Bibliobazaar, 2008), 19.

  18. Mill, 42.

  19. Isaiah Berlin, Liberty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 175.

  20. Thomas Jefferson, in a Letter to Samuel Kerche- val (September 5, 1816). https://founders.archives. gov/documents/Jefferson/03-10-02-0255.

  21. Zeynep Tufekci, Twitter and Tear Gas (New Hav- en, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2017), 235.

  22. Tufekci, Twitter and Tear Gas, 235.

Firmin DeBrabander has taught Philosophy at the Maryland institute College of Art since 2005. He is the author of two books: Spinoza and the Stoics (Continuum Press 2007), and Do Guns Make us Free? Democracy and the Armed Society (Yale University Press, 2015).