Welcome to the Panopticon

New technology turning society into a perfect prison

James Corbett
The Corbett Report

March 8, 2008


Imagine John Doe taking a taxi in the near future. He steps into the cab and instantly his name, address and a list of recent purchases flash on the cab driver's computer screen. "Should I take you home to 221B Main Street, Mr. Doe?" the cab driver asks, eyeing John in the rear-view mirror to see if his face matches that of the digital photograph on his monitor.

"Uhhh, no," John says. "How do you know my address?"

"Oh, then I can take you down to your office on 52nd Street if that's where you're heading. Or are you going to the drug store over on 2nd Avenue like last time?"

"Hold on," John says. "How do you know all of this?"

"Oh, sorry, Mr. Doe, it looks like you're running a little short on cash right now. Are you going to want to put this trip on credit?" the cabbie asks, punching some buttons on his computer. Something comes up on the screen and the cabbie stops, locks all the doors so John can't get out of the cab.

"What are you doing?"

"I'm sorry, Mr. Doe, but it looks like your name is on a terrorist watchlist. I've let the police know and they'll be here shortly to collect you."

Should John Doe really be so surprised? It may sound like the stuff of science-fiction, but as a recent guest on The Corbett Report revealed, the technology that would make such a nightmare scenario possible is already starting to come on the market.

Trevor Warner is a businessman in Australia who is marketing technology to vendors like taxi companies or pizza delivery companies who require wireless credit card and smart card authorization for their customers in an increasingly cashless society.

Talking about the RFID smart cards being promoted by major credit card companies like Visa and MasterCard, Mr. Warner says "The customers using those cards, if they walk within...six feet from one of our terminals we can pick up the signal from that RFID device." Speaking to the nightmare scenario outlined in the imaginary tale of Mr. Doe's taxi ride, Mr. Warner adds that the company processing this information may "know the identitiy of that person, and they may not even have used our service."

For the full interview with Trevor Warner, please click here.

As the interview makes clear, the the drive toward a cashless society—always marketed in terms of convenience—brings with it an attendant series of privacy issues that the major financial institutions, the controlled corporate media and the government would prefer you didn't ponder too deeply.

Indeed, what is seldom made clear is that the information on these smart cards are being stored in centralized databases, and could conceivably be linked to national databases being created by governments like the U.S., the U.K. and Canada. More worrying still is that these governments have already created terrorist watchlists that are being used to suppress political dissent. Add to this the recent technological advances that allow for governments to create DNA databases containing the very genetic code of its citizens, X-Ray cameras that can see through clothes being hidden in lamp posts, behaviour detection cameras that can monitor suspicious activities and call the police all by themselves, blood-scanning cameras that use infrared beams to count the number of people in each car, and cameras that could even predict terrorist events before they happen by identifying the micro-expressions of would-be terrorists in crowds and it becomes painfully obvious that the potential for the government to know where you are and what you're doing at all times has never been greater.

Bentham's panopticon

The key to understanding what this technology represents may come from a British philosopher who has been dead for 200 years. Jeremy Bentham came up with the idea for the perfect prison in 1785. Essentially a circular structure with cells on the outer ring and a guardtower in the center, the panopticon works by allowing guards to conceivably watch each prisoner's movements at all times. The genius of the panopticon, however, is that the prisoners cannot see if they are being observed and so, eventually, start censoring their actions as if they were always being watched. In effect, they begin to police themselves.

The panopticon stands as a metaphor for what is happening in our own day and age. Except in our time, the panopticon is not an architectural structure like a prison; it is the very planet itself. We are increasingly being watched, tracked, traced, our data stored and logged in national databases to which citizens do not have access. The cumulative effect of this technology is that citizens end up like the prisoners in Bentham's panopticon: afraid to do anything out of line for fear it may be seen someday, somewhere, by someone. This is amplified by the fostering of terror paranoia by various government programs to make the prisoners of the panoptic system into citizen informants in a type of Snitch State.

For more information on the panopticon and its relation to our present-day society, please listen to the latest episode of The Corbett Report podcast. You can download the episode in mp3 by clicking here or listening in the player below:

Concerned citizens might start letting the government know how they feel about the creation of this panopticon by emailing the Department of Homeland Security to share your thoughts about the Real ID.