Panopticonism: Join the Fight Against Mass Surveillance

Today is the day we fight back against mass surveillance by the NSA, other governments around the world, and the complicity of private companies in doing so. The normalization of mass, dragnet surveillance and the lack of transparency and oversight is a greater threat to our civil liberties than anything the government might turn up in its sifting. Mass surveillance is a disciplining device, much like Foucault's panopticon, making anyone using the internet or mobile phones think twice about what they communicate or what information they seek.

The widespread transmission of internet usage data, commonly know as metadata, has provoked widespread opposition among the press freedom and human rights community, yet too often members of the general public don't seem to comprehend the intrusion this represents. Indeed the argument that 'I have nothing to hide so why should I mind' completely misses the point because it is not about hiding, it is about the expectation of privacy and its inextricable link with the freedom to express oneself, which the lack of privacy can dampen. It is also clear from the past several months of revelations about NSA spying in conjunction with extensive surveillance operation against news outlets/journalists like AP and Fox that these operations impact journalism and thus the free flow of information and the public's right to know.

If major US-based, global internet companies must secretly report to the US government, yet cannot even discuss this fact or its details with the public, this is clearly an effort to restrict information flows and impinges on a fundamental component of free expression. Furthermore, such outsourcing of surveillance by companies with users around the world has global implications and thus today is not just about opposition by Americans, it should include protests from anyone if the world who objects to intrusive government surveillance and meta-data gathering.

Organizers of "The Day We Fight Back" announced this day of activism "on the eve of the anniversary of the tragic suicide of activist and technologist Aaron Swartz. The protest is both in his honor and in celebration of the victory over the Stop Online Piracy Act two years ago this month, which he helped spur," according to the press release. Although the organizers have focused on the US and the NSA, the problem is broader.

Revelations over the past year about widespread surveillance of electronic signal flows and metadata, however, are not confined to the US. The US is just one member of the Five Eyes "electronic eavesdropping alliance," which also includes the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Furthermore, France's 'mutualization infrastructure'and the UK's 'Tempora'program (gaining access to network cables) have raised many of the same concerns as the NSA's PRISM program about surveillance and privacy violations (although Europe has stronger protections for the later). Indeed the UK boasted in 2010 that had the '"biggest internet access" of any member of the Five Eyes." In the Arab region, activists are also taking part in the campaign because mass surveillance affects everyone, although of course in much of the region the lack of an independent judiciary and rule of law poses an even greater challenge as there is no due process or mechanisms to hold government responsible.

This video is a nice summary of some of the issues: How the Government Tracks You: NSA Surveillance.

The organizers suggest some ways users can "fight back":
  • Visit
  • Sign up to indicate that you'll participate and receive updates.
  • Sign up to install widgets on websites encouraging its visitors to fight back against surveillance
  • Use the social media tools on the site to announce your participation.
  • Develop memes, tools, websites, and do whatever else you can to participate -- and encourage others to do the same.