Hacking the Panopticon: distributed online surveillance and resistance

Surveillance studies scholars have embraced Foucault's panopticon as a central metaphor in their analysis of online monitoring technologies, despite several architectural incompatibilities between eighteenth and nineteenth century prisons and twenty-first century computer networks. I highlight a number of Internet features that highlight the limits of the electronic panopticon. I examine two trends that have been considerably underestimated by surveillance scholars: (1) the democratization of surveillance, where the distributed structure of the Internet and the availability of observation technologies has blurred the distinction between those who watch and those who are being watched, allowing individuals or marginalized groups to deploy sophisticated surveillance technologies against the state or large corporations; and (2) the resistance strategies that Internet users are adopting to curb the surveillance of their online activities, through blocking moves such as the use of cryptography, or masking moves that are designed to feed meaningless data to monitoring tools. I conclude that these two trends are neglected by a majority of surveillance scholars because of biases that make them dismiss the initiative displayed by ordinary users, assess positive and negative outcomes differently, and confuse what is possible and what is probable.

This content has been updated on July 13, 2015 at 16 h 20 min.