The Panopticon Singularity

By Charles Stross [with NOTES and additions from my own research to update]

Author’s note: This essay was originally commissioned by Alex Steffen for the projected 111st issue of Whole Earth Review, which was to focus on the Singularity. Sadly, WER effectively ceased publication with issue 110, and (the shorter, WER-edited version of) this article is not among the content you can find on their web site. I’m therefore releasing this draft.

I originally wrote this in early 2002. I have not updated the content significantly — I think it provides a useful historical context — but have checked and, where necessary, modified the URLs. Where I have made additions to the text, they are noted.


The 18th century utopian philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon was a prison; a circle of cells with windows facing inwards, towards a tower, wherein jailers could look out and inspect the prisoners at any time, unseen by their subjects.

Though originally proposed as a humane experiment in penal reform in 1785, Bentham’s idea has eerie resonances today. One of the risks of the technologies that may give rise to a singularity is that they may also permit the construction of a Panopticon society — a police state characterised by omniscient surveillance and mechanical law enforcement.

Note that I am not using the term “panopticon singularity” in the same sense as Vinge’s Singularity (which describes the emergence of strongly superhuman intelligence through either artificial intelligence breakthroughs or progress in augmenting human intelligence), but in a new sense: the emergence of a situation in which human behaviour is deterministically governed by processes outside human control. (To give an example: currently it is illegal to smoke cannabis, but many people do so. After a panopticon singularity, it will not only be illegal but impossible.) The development of a panopticon singularity does not preclude the development of a Vingean singularity; indeed, one may potentiate (or suppress) the other. I would also like to note that the idea has been discussed in fictional form by Vinge. [A Deepness in the Sky – a Zones of Thought book]

Moore’s Law states that the price of integrated circuitry falls exponentially over time. The tools of surveillance today are based on integrated circuits: unlike the grim secret policemen of the 20th century’s totalitarian regimes they’re getting cheaper, so that an intelligence agency with a fixed budget can hope to expand the breadth of its surveillance rapidly. In the wake of the events of September 11th, 2001, the inevitable calls for something to be done have segued into criticism of the west’s intelligence apparatus: and like all bureaucratic agencies, their response to a failure is to redouble their efforts in the same direction as before. (If at first you don’t succeed, try harder.)

It is worth noting that while the effectiveness of human-based surveillance organizations is dependent on the number of people involved — and indeed may grow more slowly than the work force, due to the overheads of coordinating and administering the organization — systems of mechanised surveillance may well increase in efficiency as a power function of the number of deployed monitoring points. (For example: if you attempt to monitor a single email server, you can only sample the traffic from those users whose correspondence flows through it, but if you can monitor the mail servers of the largest ISPs you can monitor virtually everything without needing to monitor all the email client systems. Almost all traffic flows between two mail servers, and most traffic flows through just a few major ISPs at some point.) Moreover, it may be possible to expand an automated surveillance network indefinitely by simply adding machines, whereas it is difficult to expand a human organization beyond a certain point without having knock-on effects on the macroeconomic scale (e.g. by sucking up a significant proportion of the labour force).

Here’s a shopping-list of ten technologies for the police state of the next decade, and estimates of when they’ll be available. Of necessity, the emphasis is on the UK — but it could happen where you live, too: and the prognosis for the next twenty years is much scarier.

Smart cameras

Availability: today.

The UK leads the world in closed circuit surveillance of public places, with over two [2004: four] million cameras watching sixty million people. Cameras are cheaper than cops, and act as a force multiplier, letting one officer watch dozens of locations. They can see in the dark, too. But today’s cameras are limited. The panopticon state will want cheaper cameras: powered by solar panels and networked using high-bandwidth wireless technology so that they can be installed easily, small so that they’re unobtrusive, and equipped with on-board image analysis software. A pilot study in the London borough of Lambeth is already using face recognition software running on computers monitoring the camera network to alert officers when known troublemakers appear on the streets. Tomorrow’s smart cameras will ignore boring scenes and focus on locations where suspicious activities are occuring.

(Experience suggests that cameras don’t reduce crime — they just move it to places where there’s no surveillance, or displace it into types of crime that aren’t readily visible. So the logical response of the crime-fighting bureaucracy is to install more cameras …)


Here is information from the site of the leading manufacturer of the software that deals with the problems of CCTV:


The CCTV Problem

“Closed Circuit Television cameras (CCTV) have always been crucial in supplying surveillance and security in the fight against crime.

However, all too often, CCTV has been reduced to a retrospective, forensic role; examining what went wrong and helping investigators in the aftermath of a crime.

The efficiency of CCTV systems is further blighted by the inability of the operator to pick up all the information that is being displayed.

Studies show, “After 12 minutes of continuous video monitoring an operator will often miss up to 45% of screen activity. After 22 minutes of viewing, up to 95% is overlooked.” (Security Oz, Oct / Nov 2002)”


“The Ipsotek Visual Intelligence Suite™ is the premier software package for pro-active surveillance of high-risk environments.

The Visual Intelligence Suite™ features flexible behavioural algorithms which are used for a variety of applications where human operators struggle to keep track of risks and threats as they arise:

  • Border Security
  • Suspect Packages
  • Counter-terrorism
  • Abandoned Vehicles
  • Site Security
  • ATM Surfing / PIN theft
  • Prostitution & Kerb Crawling
  • Graffiti
  • Vandalism
  • Abnormal Motion of Cars/People
  • Muggings
  • Anti-Social Behaviour
  • Unauthorised Plant Removal
  • Unauthorised Maintenance
  • Disaster Recovery Site Protection
  • Art Galleries & High Value Retail Items
  • Critical Infrastructure Protection
  • Platform Suicide
  • Overcrowding, Vector Analysis
  • Retail Fraud
  • Iconic Buildings
  • Trackside Intrusion

Please follow the links for further analysis of intrusion, suspect packages, loitering & overcrowding. – (so following them leads to:)


“Many competitors offer simple intrusion alerts based on motion detection, but the VI suite goes much further. Multiple areas of interest can be set within a single field-of-view and can be customised according to their sensitivity or interest.

Again, the instant replay feature allows the attendant security personnel to review and appropriate the correct response at the touch of a button.

Continual refinement of the video algorithms and an understanding of the depth of perception has virtually eliminated false positives from birds, paper bags, stray dogs or any other unwanted foreign intrusion.”

Suspect Packages

“Ipsotek’s Visual Intelligence Platform has unrivalled abandoned package detection rates due to the background learning nature of the software

It can recognise abandoned packages, secreted away under benches or partially hidden behind pillars, regardless of the levels of footfall interference. The instant alert replay feature allows the attendant operator to identify the culprit and take appropriate action, at the touch of a screen.

The ability to recognise stationary objects that are not part of the background can also be used to highlight collapsed or unconscious persons as well as illegally parked vehicles. This is just one example of how the flexibility inherent in Ipsotek’s algorithms allows the software to focus on the problems that have been identified.”


“Loitering is the term used to describe a person standing around without any obvious purpose. This behaviour is often displayed by prostitutes, drug dealers, muggers ad PIN surfers ( card fraud experts)

There is also strong evidence to suggest that those intent on committing suicide by jumping onto the subway tracks will wait until several trains have passed before finally plucking up courage to commit the act.

The Visual Intelligence Platform™ can recognise loitering regardless of changeable ambient light conditions or overcrowding.”

Overcrowding / Congestion

“Overcrowding can be a serious threat to life. With sports stadiums boasting ever larger capacities and the continued popularity and growth of festivals, the ability to monitor and control crowds is becoming ever more crucial if we are to avoid a repeat occurrence of some of the tragic disasters of the past.

Ipsotek’s Vector Analysis algorithms can track individual movements within the crowded scenes, displaying them motion trends and thereby allowing operators to predicts where pressure will be greatest and react accordingly.

Vector Analysis also highlights discrepancies from the expected motion trends. Ticket touts and pickpockets thrive in dense, moving crowds; working against the flow, allowing them to gain maximum exposure to others in the shortest possible amount of time.”

NOW, back to the Ipsotek site:

“The Visual Intelligence Platform™ detects unusual activity by recognising behavioural patterns pre-programmed into the computer’s memory. Once any of the selected behaviour pattern is detected, the computer notifies CCTV operators, staff or management to the potential threat using visual and audio alerts. The technology then instantly reverses and replays the incident at the touch of a screen for users to examine.

It is at the discretion of the attendant operator to then take the appropriate action.

Unlike many other ‘real-time’ solutions offered on the market, Ipsotek can work equally effectively under ambient light conditions. Thus Ipsotek software is ideally suited to application in both indoor and outdoor environments, regardless of inclement weather or natural light variations.”

See demos at:


“British citizens live under the most intense surveillance on this planet. By the millennium’s dawn, there was one CCTV camera for every 14 people in the UK; work in a major city, and it’s likely you’ll be filmed at least 300 times per day. In the face of flawed technology and political duplicity, Gordon Brown’s cabinet is pressing ahead with plans to introduce identity cards which will be compulsory in all but name. This country already has the largest DNA database in the world (four million files) and our personal telephone records could soon be available to more than 650 governmental bodies. Prudence or paranoia? Novacon 37’s programme stared into Today, recalled the Past and extrapolated the Britain of Tomorrow.”

Peer to peer surveillance networks

Availability: 1-5 years.

Today’s camera networks are hard-wired and static. But cameras and wireless technology are already converging in the shape of smartphones. Soon, surveillance cameras will take on much of the monitoring tasks that today require Police control centres: using gait analysis and face recognition to pick up suspects, handing off surveillance between cameras as suspects move around, using other cameras as wireless routers to avoid network congestion and dead zones. The ability to tap into home webcams, private security cameras, and Neighbourhood Watch schemes will extend coverage out of public spaces and into the private realm. Many British cities already require retail establishments to install CCTV: the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2001) gives the Police the right to demand access to electronic data — including camera feeds. Ultimately the panopticon society needs cameras to be as common as street lights.

(Looking on the bright side: London Transport is experimenting with smart cameras that can identify potential suicides on underground train platforms by their movement patterns, which differ from those of commuters. So p2p surveillance cameras will help the trains run on time …)


“Camera software, dubbed Cromatica, is being developed at London’s Kingston University to help improve security on public transport systems but it could be used on a wider scale.

It works by detecting differences in the images shown on the screen.

For example, background changes indicate a crowd of people and possible congestion. If there is a lot of movement in the images, it could indicate a fight.”

Preventing suicide

“It could detect unattended bags, people who are loitering or even predict if someone is going to commit suicide by throwing themselves on the track,” said its inventor Dr Sergio Velastin.”

From above link:

See also:

AND, lest you think this is purely U.K.:

All Things Considered, October 26, 2007 · Chicago already has an elaborate network of surveillance cameras to detect crime — 560 cameras with plans to install 100 more.

Now, the city is teaming with IBM to launch what is being billed as the most advanced video security network in the United States: a system that could be programmed to recognize and warn authorities of suspicious behavior, such as a backpack left in a park or the same truck circling a high-rise several times.

IBM’s Roger Rehayem says smart cameras using analytic software can send out alerts for vehicles of certain colors, models and makes. And if a camera is positioned right, it can pick out license plates or even recognize faces….

Chicago officials say they’re not completely sold yet on the smart surveillance technology. They say visual and audio advancements, such as gunshot recognition, just haven’t been perfected enough yet to justify the cost of installing smart surveillance cameras citywide.”


“Triggered Response

Dec 8, 2005, By Jim McKay

The sound of gunshots in high-crime neighborhoods may or may not move residents to call 911. In some neighborhoods, the sound of gunfire is unfortunately part of the landscape, and when they do call, residents can’t always be sure where the sound came from.
So what if the gunshot automatically triggered a 911 call, and captured video of the shooter? Police in Chicago are hoping to curb gun violence with technology that does just that.
The technology — Smart Sensor Enabled Neural Threat Recognition and Identification (SENTRI) — recognizes the sound of a gunshot within a two-block radius, pinpoints the location of the shot with a surveillance camera, focuses on the location, and in less than 1 second, places a 911 call.
The goal is to use the devices to prevent homicides in areas known for gang activity and gun violence.
Continued Vigilance
Chicago successfully deployed 53 surveillance cameras over the years, and has deployed the gunshot-recognition technology in about one-third of those. The cameras, by themselves, were credited with reducing the city’s 2004 crime rate to its lowest level since 1965 — sexual assault is down 5 percent from the previous year, robbery is down 8 percent, aggravated assault is down 5 percent, and total violent crime is down 7 percent — and it is hoped the SENTRI system will provide even more ammunition against crime.”


The Sentri Solution: A New Age in Law Enforcement:

“Safety Dynamics specializes in the use of smart sensors for threat recognition and localization. Safety Dynamics is currently selling and supporting a system for law enforcement called SENTRI (Sensor Enabled Neural Threat Recognition and Identification). The system is a breakthrough technology that recognizes gunshots and explosions and sends range and bearing details to cameras which can then locate the source of the event.”

So, it is here, now.

Gait analysis

Availability: now to 5 years.

Ever since the first slow-motion film footage, it’s been clear that people and animals move their limbs in unique ways — ways that depend on the relative dimensions of the underlying bone structure. Computer recognition of human faces has proven to be difficult and unreliable, and it’s prone to disguise: it’s much harder to change the length of your legs or the way you walk.

Researchers at Imperial College, London, and elsewhere have been working on using gait analysis as a tool for remote biometric identification of individuals, by deriving a unique gait signature from video footage of their movement.

(When gait analysis collides with ubiquitous peer-to-peer smart cameras, expect bank robbers to start wearing long skirts.)


See the paper on “People Detection and Recognition using Gait for Automated Visual Surveillance by Imed Bouchrika and M S Nixon, University of Southampton, UK, presented at The Institute of Engineering and Technology at a conference on Crime and Security in London, 13-14th June, 2006:

So, this is here, now.

Terahertz radar

Availability: 2-8 years.

Very short wavelength radio waves can be tuned to penetrate some solid and semi-solid surfaces (such as clothing or drywall), and return much higher resolution images than conventional radar. A lot of work is going into domesticating this frequency range, with funding by NIST focussing in particular on developing lightweight short-range radar systems. Terahertz radar can pick up concealed hard objects — such as a gun or a knife worn under outer clothing — at a range of several metres; when it arrives, it’ll provide the panopticon society’s enforcers with something close to Superman’s X-ray vision.

(If they can see through walls, why bother with a search warrant?)

NOTE: See the same conference as above: “Advances in Through Wall Radar for Search, Rescue and Security Applications by Hugh Burchett, Imaging Detection and Tracking Group Leader, Cambridge Consultants, UK, presented at The Institute of Engineering and Technology at a conference on Crime and Security in London, 13-14th June, 2006:


Physical optics modelling of millimetre-wave personnel scanners

Pattern Recognition Letters, Volume 27 , Issue 15 (November 2006),
Special issue on vision for crime detection and prevention, Pages: 1852 – 1862 by Beatriz Grafulla-González, Katia Lebart, and Andrew R. Harvey

“We describe the physical-optics modelling of a millimetre-wave imaging system intended to enable automated detection of threats hidden under clothes. This paper outlines the theoretical basis of the formation of millimetre-wave images and provides the model of the simulated imaging system. Results of simulated images are presented and the validation with real ones is carried out. Finally, we present a brief study of the potential materials to be classified in this system.” abstract



“Is it possible to screen everyone that enters­—or exits—your facility, without screeching your operations to a virtual halt? Do you know what your visitors, customers, patrons, constituents and staff may be hiding without stopping and questioning each one? Would you like an easier way to know who to search or where to look?


  • Provides standoff threat detection without requiring subjects to stand still
  • Detects concealed objects in as little as 0.5 second
  • Presents a full-body area at the 10-foot optimal focal point
  • Does not image specific body details, eliminating personal privacy issues
  • Transmits no radiation or energy of any kind
  • Integrates seamlessly with ancillary devices, enabling remote operation and event traps

Plus it can be…

  • Monitored remotely
  • In real time
  • Without requiring cooperation
  • Without a physical pat down

Can you see what they’re hiding? The BIS-WDS® GEN 2 Can!”

See what you’re missing!
Some locations—like airports and other critical transportation hubs, have already invested in security screening technologies like X-ray machines, metal detectors, and added security staff.
But those technologies can’t see explosive materials, liquids and gels, or thick packets of currency. GEN 2 can be integrated into your existing security strategy, and by imaging subjects in motion, it can be used to direct subjects into secondary screening lanes for further investigation, focusing security efforts and eliminating profiling or ineffective random screening.”

Stem the tide of product shrinkage!
Loss prevention personnel will find the GEN 2 invaluable in identifying hidden objects exiting a facility. The system can image metals, wood, electronic devices, bottles of liquor… even fresh or frozen foods! Managers and security personnel can pat down employees virtually without physical contact. Event logging functionality records the detection, providing ideal documentation in the event of an employee termination or theft prosecution.”

Proven Results –
Office of Law Enforcement Technology Commercialization (OLETC)
The GEN 2 system received positive, top-line results from its operational assessment trial of the GEN 2 Object Detection and People Screening System performed by the Office of Law Enforcement Technology Commercialization (OLETC) during a pilot trial at the Baltimore Police Department Headquarters Building. The results confirm state of the art screening technology characterized by advance capabilities beyond those offered by more traditional screening options such as metal detectors.
View full report details click here (link to white paper).”

This is here now, and has been used in the U.S.


Availability: 3-10 years.

Cellphones emit microwave radiation at similar wavelengths to radar systems. Celldar is a passive radar system that listens to the signals reflected by cellphone emitters. When a solid object passes between a transmitter and a cellphone it reduces the signal strength at a receiver.

Celldar was originally designed as a military system that would use reflected cellphone emissions to locate aircraft passing above the protected area. However, by correlating signal strength across a wide number of cellular transceivers (both base stations and phone handsets) in real time it should be possible to build up a picture of what objects are in the vicinity. Subtract the known locations of buildings, and you’ve got a system that can place any inhabited area under radar surveillance — by telephone. (As Rodney King demonstrated, we can already be tracked by cellphone. Now the panopticon society can place us under radar surveillance by phone. And as phones exchange data at ever higher bandwidth, the frequencies will shorten towards the terahertz range. Nude phone calling will take on an entirely different meaning …)


Aircraft tracking using CELLDAR™.

“The CELLDAR™ passive radar system is now under joint development by ourselves and BAE Systems and is the world’s first passive radar to use cell phone basestation signals.”


“The Missouri Department of Transportation has begun anonymously monitoring cell phone signals as a high-tech way of tracking vehicle speeds and warning motorists of traffic jams. The goal is for motorists to get real-time traffic information over the Internet or road signs.

Privacy concerns have slowed down the Missouri project – the largest of its kind nationally – which was supposed to have been deployed statewide by summer 2006 under a contract with Markham, Canada-based Delcan Corp.”

Ubiquitous RFID ‘dust’

Availability: 1-5 years.

Radio Frequency ID chips are used for tagging commercial produce. Unlike today’s simple anti-shoplifting tags in books and CD’s, the next generation will be cheap (costing one or two cents each), tiny (sand-grain sized), and smart enough to uniquely identify any individual manufactured product, by serial number as well as type and vendor. They can be embedded in plastic, wood, food, or fabric, and by remotely interrogating the RFID chips in your clothing or posessions the panopticon society’s agencies can tell a lot about you — like, what you’re reading, what you just ate, and maybe where you’ve been if they get cheap enough to scatter like dust. More insidiously, because each copy of a manufactured item will be uniquely identifiable, they’ll be able to tell not only what you’re reading, but where you bought it. RFID chips are injectable, too, so you won’t be able to misplace your identity by accident.

(And if the panopticon police don’t like the books you’re reading or the DVDs you’re watching, maybe they can use your tag fingerprint to order up a new you?)


In order to be use-friendly, one of the manufacturers of RDIF launched this site:

And there is a Journal devoted to it:

And the next generation IS here:


“Hitachi Develops World’s Smallest RFID Chip”
October 26, 2007 – Sarah Gingichashvili, The Future of Things (TOFT)

“The Japanese giant Hitachi has developed the world’s smallest and thinnest Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chip. Measuring only 0.15 x 0.15 millimeters in size and 7.5 micrometers thick, the wireless chip is a smaller version of the previous record holder – Hitachi’s 0.4 x 0.4 mm “Micro-Chip”.

Miniature RFID chips may also have advanced military applications such as smartdust. Smartdust is the concept of wireless MEMS (Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems) sensors that can detect anything from light and temperature to vibrations. Using a large amount of sensors is not a new concept – the U.S. military experimented with this idea already during the Vietnam War (Operation Igloo White). While the older sensors were relatively large and only somewhat effective, Professor Christopher Pister from UC Berkeley suggested in 2001 to create a new type of micro sensor that could theoretically be as small as a grain of sand. Research into this idea is ongoing and is being funded by DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). What was only a theoretical concept in 2001 has now become a reality with the latest development by Hitachi, and could find its way to intelligence agencies across the world.

RFID chips are also a source for increasing controversy surrounding issues of privacy. An RFID chip can be used to track the location of unsuspecting individuals who have bought products that include RFID tags in their package. Having miniature cheap RFID chips, such as those developed by Hitachi, implanted inside anything we buy might make many people feel very uncomfortable. However, big businesses believe that consumers’ fears are dwarfed by the benefits of RFID chips, which include reduced theft, digital real time inventory, and better information on consumer shopping habits.”

Trusted computing and Digital Rights Management

Availability: now-5 years.

Trusted Computing doesn’t mean computers you can trust: it means computers that intellectual property corporations can trust. Microsoft’s Palladium software (due in a future Windows release [2004: due in Windows Longhorn, renamed to NGSCB]) and Intel’s TPCA architecture are both components of a trusted computing platform. The purpose of trusted computing is to enforce Digital Rights Management — that is, to allow information providers to control what you do with the information, not to protect your rights.

Disney will be able to sell you DVDs that will decrypt and run on a Palladium platform, but which you won’t be able to copy. Microsoft will be able to lease you software that stops working if you forget to pay the rental. Want to cut and paste a paragraph from your physics text book into that essay you’re writing? DRM enforced by TCPA will prevent you (and snitch to the publisher’s copyright lawyers). Essentially, TPCA will install a secret policeman into every microprocessor. PCs stop being general purpose machines and turn into Windows on the panopticon state. It’s not about mere legal copyright protection; as Professor Lawrence Lessig points out, the rights that software and media companies want to reserve go far beyond their legal rights under copyright law.

If the trusted computing folks get their way, to ensure control they’ll need to pass legislation to outlaw alternative media. Jaron Lanier predicts that today’s microphones, speakers and camcorders could become contraband; and in case this sounds outlandish and paranoid, the US senate has seen more than one bill, (most prominent among them, the Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act) that would require DRM interlocks in all analog-to-digital conversion electronics in order to prevent illicit copying.

(Presumably he wasn’t thinking of aircraft instrumentation, cardiac monitors, or machine tools at the time, but under the proposed law they would need copy-prevention interlocks as well … )

WIKI says about DRM and TCPA and Palladium:


“The Next-Generation Secure Computing Base (NGSCB), formerly known as Palladium, is a software architecture designed by Microsoft which is expected to implement parts of the controversial “Trusted Computing” concept on future versions of the Microsoft Windows operating system. NGSCB is part of Microsoft’s Trustworthy Computing initiative. Microsoft’s stated aim for NGSCB is to increase the security and privacy of computer users, but critics assert that the technology will not only fail to solve the majority of contemporary IT security problems, but also result in an increase in vendor lock-in and thus a reduction in competition in the IT marketplace.

NGSCB relies on hardware technology designed by members of the Trusted Computing Group (TCG), which provides a number of security-related features, including fast random number generation, a secure cryptographic co-processor, and the ability to hold cryptographic keys in a manner that makes them extremely difficult to retrieve, even to the machine’s owner. It is this latter ability that makes remote attestation of the hardware and software configuration of an NGSCB-enabled computer possible, and to which the opponents of the scheme chiefly object. Several computer manufacturers are selling computers with the Trusted Platform Module chip, notably the Dell OptiPlex GX620.”

“NGSCB and Trusted Computing can be used to intentionally and arbitrarily lock certain users out from use of certain files, products and services, for example to lock out users of a competing product, potentially leading to severe vendor lock-in. This is analogous to a contemporary problem in which many businesses feel compelled to purchase and use Microsoft Word in order to be compatible with associates who use that software. Today this problem is partially solved by products such as which provide limited compatibility with Microsoft Office file formats. Under NGSCB, if Microsoft Word were to encrypt documents it produced, no other application would be able to decrypt them, regardless of its ability to read the underlying file format.”

“When originally announced, NGSCB was expected to be part of the then next major version of the Windows Operating System, Windows Vista (then known as Longhorn). However, in May 2004, Microsoft was reported to have shelved the NGSCB project. This was quickly denied by Microsoft who released a press release stating that they were instead “revisiting” their plans. The majority of features of NGSCB are now not expected to be available until well after the release of Windows Vista. However, Vista includes “BitLocker“, which can make use of a Trusted Platform Module chip to facilitate secure startup and full-drive encryption. TPMs are already integrated in many systems using Intel’s Core 2 Duo processors or AMD’s Athlon 64 processors using the AM2 socket.”

FROM windows itself:

“Our first delivery on the vision is a hardware based security feature in Longhorn [Vista] called Secure Startup. Secure Startup utilizes a Trusted Platform Module (TPM 1.2) to improve PC security and it meets some of the most critical requirements we heard from our customers-specifically, the capability to ensure that the PC running Longhorn starts in a known-good state, as well as protection of data from unauthorized access through full volume encryption.

Subsequent to Secure Startup, Microsoft will be focused on continuing to build other aspects of the NGSCB vision. These will complement Secure Startup to enable a broad range of new secure computing solutions. The technical specifications, timing and delivery vehicles are TBD.”

Cognitive radio

Availability: now-10 years.

Radio waves can travel through one another without interacting. Radio ‘interference’ happens when radio transceivers use dumb encoding schemes that don’t let multiple channels share the same wavelength: interference is a side-effect of poor design, not a fundamental limit on wireless communications.

With fast microprocessors it’s possible to decode any radio-frequency signal on the fly in software, by performing Fourier analysis on the raw signal rather than by using hard-wired circuitry. Software radios can be reconfigured on the fly to use new encoding schemes or frequencies. Some such encoding schemes work to avoid interference; so-called cognitive radio transcievers take account of other transmitters in the neighbourhood and negotiate with them to allocate each system a free frequency. (The 802.11 wireless networking protocols are one early example of this in action.) SR doesn’t sound like a tool of the panopticon society until you put them together with celldar and TCPA. Cellphones and computers are on a collision course. If the PC becomes a phone, and every computer comes with a built-in secret policeman _and_ can be configured in software, the panopticon’s power becomes enormous: remote interrogation of RFID dust in your vicinity will let the authorities know who you’re associating with, reconfiguration of phones into celldar receivers will let them see what you’re doing, and plain old-fashioned bugging will let them listen in. If they can be bothered.

(Invest in tinfoil hat manufacturers; it’s the future of headgear!)


Scientific American MagazineMarch, 2006

Cognitive Radio

“Engineers are now working to bring that kind of flexible operating intelligence to future radios, cell phones and other wireless communications devices. During the coming decade, cognitive radio technology should enable nearly any wireless system to locate and link to any locally available unused radio spectrum to best serve the consumer. Employing adaptive software, these smart devices could reconfigure their communications functions to meet the demands of the transmission network or the user.

Cognitive radio technology will know what to do based on prior experience. On the morning drive to work, for instance, it would measure the propagation characteristics, signal strength and transmission quality of the different bands as it rides along with you. The cognitive radio unit would thus build an internal database that defines how it should best operate in different places and at specific times of day. In contrast, the frequency bands and transmission protocol parameters of current wireless systems have been mostly fixed.”

Lab-on-a-chip chemical analysers

Availability: now-5 years.

Microtechnology, unlike nanotechnology, is here today. By building motors, gears, pumps, and instruments onto silicon wafers using the same lithographic techniques that are used for making microcircuitry, engineers are making it possible to build extremely small — and cheap — analytical laboratories. Devices under development include gas chromatography analysers, mass spectroscopes, flow cytometers, and a portable DNA analyser small enough to fit in a briefcase. The panopticon society is lavish with its technologies: what today would occupy a Police department’s forensic lab, will tomorrow fit into a box the size of a palmtop computer.

(And they won’t have to send that urine sample to a lab in order to work out that you were in the same room as somebody who smoked a joint two weeks ago.)


and here’s one from the above company:


“The Miniature DVR with built in color pinhole camera, battery, and monitor with video motion and sound activation. Ideal for Investigations in hospitals, offices, retail or hotel rooms – anywhere you need to be in and out quickly. Options available such as external camera connection, body worn and network connection shown in MD-2000 model below.”

OR from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories (LLNL):

“A dime-sized amplifier makes fiber-optic communications faster and clearer. A portable DNA analyzer helps detect and identify organisms in the field, including human remains and biological warfare agents. A tiny gripper inserted in a blood vessel treats aneurysms in the brain to ward off potential strokes. What do these technologies have in common? Each one is smaller than any comparable product, opening up a host of new applications. And each originated in Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s Microtechnology Center.”

Data mining

Availability: -5 years to +10 years

Total Information Awareness. Department of Homeland Security. NSA. ECHELON. This article was emailed to Whole Earth Review’s staff; by including these keywords it almost certainly caught the attention of ECHELON, the data mining operation run by the NSA and its associated intelligence agencies. ECHELON has monitored all internet, telephone, fax, telex, and radio traffic for years, hoovering up the data. But analysing electronic intelligence is like trying to drink water from a firehose; the problem is identifying relevant information, because for every Al Qaida operative discussing the next bomb plot, a million internet denizens are speculating and gossiping about the same topic. And if the infoglut seems bad now, wait until your every walk down the high street generates megabytes of tracking data. The Department of Homeland Security is just one of the most obvious agencies trying to tackle the information surplus generated by the embryonic panopticon society. The techniques they propose to use entail linking up access to a variety of public and private databases, from credit rating agencies and the INS to library lending records, ISP email and web server logs, and anything else they can get their hands on. The idea is to spot terrorists and wrongdoers pre-emptively by detecting patterns of suspicious behaviour.

The trouble is, data mining by cross-linking databases can generate false inferences. Imagine your HMO with access to your web browsing records. Your sister asks you to find her some books about living with AIDS, to pass on to a friend; you go look on, researching the topic, and all the HMO knows is that you’re looking for help on living with AIDS. And how does the Department of Homeland Society know whether I’m planning a terrorist act … or doing my research before writing a novel about a terrorist incident? To make matters worse, many databases contain corrupt information, either by accident or malice. The more combinations of possible corrupt data you scan, the more errors creep into your analysis. But to combat these problems, the Office of Information Awareness is proposing to develop new analytical techniques that track connections between people — where they shop, how they travel, who they know — in the hope that if they throw enough data at the problem the errors will go away.

(Guess they think they need the panopticon surveillance system, then. After all, if data mining never worked in the past, obviously you can make it work by throwing more data at it …)

The pressure to adopt these technologies springs from our existing political discourse as we struggle to confront ill-defined threats. We live in a dangerous world: widespread use of high technology means that individuals can take actions that are disruptive out of all proportion to their numbers. Human nature being what it is, we want to be safe: the promise of a high-tech surveillance “fix” that will identify terrorists or malefactors before they hurt us is a great lure.

But acts of mass terror exist at one end of a scale that begins with the parking ticket, the taping of a CD for personal use in a Walkman, a possibly-defamatory statement about a colleague sent in private email to a friend, a mistakenly ommitted cash receipt when compiling the annual tax return … the list is endless, and to a police authority with absolute knowledge and a robotic compulsion to Enforce The Law, we would all, ultimately, be found guilty of something.

This brings up a first major point: legislators do not pass laws in the expectation that everybody who violates them will automatically be caught and punished. Rather, they often pass new laws in order to send a message — to their voters (that they’re doing something about their concerns) and to the criminals (that if caught they will be dealt with harshly). There is a well-known presumption that criminals are acting rationally (in the economic sense) and their behaviour is influenced by the perceived reward for a successful crime, and both the risk and severity of punishment. This theory is implicitly taken into account by legislators when they draft legislation, because in our current state of affairs most crimes go undetected and unreported. A panopticon singularity would completely invalidate these assumptions.

Furthermore: many old laws are retained despite widespread unpopularity, because a vocal minority support them. An estimated 30 percent of the British population have smoked cannabis, currently an offense carrying a maximum penalty of 6 months’ imprisonment (despite rumours of its decriminalization), and an absolute majority of under-50’s supports decriminalization, but advocating a “soft on drugs” line was perceived as political suicide until very recently because roughly 25% of the population were strongly opposed.

Some old laws, which may not match current social norms, are retained because it is easier to ignore them than to repeal them. In Massachusetts, the crime of fornication — any sex act with someone you’re not married to — carries a 3 month prison sentence. Many towns, states, and countries have archaic laws still on the books that dictate what people must wear, how they must behave, and things they must do — laws which have fallen into disuse, and which are inappropriate to enforce. (There’s one town in Texas where since the 19th century it has been illegal for women to wear patent leather shoes, lest a male see something unmentionable reflected in them; and in London, until 1998 all taxis were required to carry a bale of hay in case their horse needed a quick bite to eat. Diesel and petrol powered cabs included.)

These laws, and others like them, highlight the fact that with a few exceptions (mostly major felonies) our legal systems were not designed with universal enforcement in mind. But universal enforcement is exactly what we’ll get if these surveillance technologies come together to produce a panopticon singularity.

A second important side-effect of panopticon surveillance is the chilling effect it exerts on otherwise lawful activities. If you believe your activities on the net are being monitored for signs of terrorist intent, would you dare do the research to write that thriller? Nobody (with any common sense) cracks a joke in the waiting line at airport security — we’re all afraid of attracting the unwelcome attention of people in uniform with no sense of humour whatsoever. Now imagine the straitjacket policing of aviation security extended into every aspect of daily life, with unblinking and remorseless surveillance of everything you do and say. Worse: imagine that the enforcers are machines, tireless and efficient and incapable of turning a blind eye.

Surveillance need not even stop at our skin; the ability to monitor our speech and track our biological signs (for example: pulse, pupillary dilation, or possibly hormone and neurotransmitter levels) may lead to attempts to monitor thoughts as well as deeds. What starts with attempts to identify paedophile predators before they strike may end with discrimination against people believed to be at risk of “addictive behaviour” — howsoever that might be defined — or of harbouring anti-social attitudes.

We are all criminals, if you dig far enough: we’ve broken the speed limit, forgotten to file official papers in time, made false statements (often because we misremembered some fact), failed to pay for services, and so on. These are minor offenses — relatively few of us are deliberate criminals. But even if we aren’t active felons we are all potential criminals, and a case can be — and is being — made for keeping us all under surveillance, all the time.

A Panopticon Singularity is the logical outcome if the burgeoning technologies of the singularity are funneled into automating law enforcement. Previous police states were limited by manpower, but the panopticon singularity substitutes technology, and ultimately replaces human conscience with a brilliant but merciless prosthesis.

If a panopticon singularity emerges, you’d be well advised to stay away from Massachusetts if you and your partner aren’t married. Don’t think about smoking a joint unless you want to see the inside of one of the labour camps where over 50% of the population sooner or later go. Don’t jaywalk, chew gum in public, smoke, exceed the speed limit, stand in front of fire exit routes, or wear clothing that violates the city dress code (passed on the nod in 1892, and never repealed because everybody knew nobody would enforce it and it would take up valuable legislative time). You won’t be able to watch those old DVD’s of ‘Friends’ you copied during the naughty oughties because if you stick them in your player it’ll call the copyright police on you. You’d better not spend too much time at the bar, or your insurance premiums will rocket and your boss might ask you to undergo therapy. You might be able to read a library book or play a round of a computer game, but your computer will be counting the words you read and monitoring your pulse so that it can bill you for the excitement it has delivered.

And don’t think you can escape by going and living in a log cabin in the middle of nowhere. It is in the nature of every police state that the most heinous offense of all is attempting to escape from it. And after all, if you’re innocent, why are you trying to hide?”


“The Ambiguous Panopticon: Foucault and the Codes of Cyberspace” by Mark Winokur, from


“David Lyon’s The Electronic Eye: The Rise of Surveillance Society — contains a lengthy discussion of the way in which panopticism is defined by “uncertainty as a means of subordination” (in other words by how the authoritarian gaze is unverifiable), his discussion of panopticism per se is largely concerned with the various data-collecting agencies that use the Internet to exert an external coercion on the individual, not with how such authority is internalized: ‘The prison-like society, where invisible observers track our digital footprints, does indeed seem panoptic.’ A little less often, scholars are interested in the ways that the Net limits our ability to think outside the Net, in other words in questions about discourse and discipline.”

From the footnotes: David Lyon, The Electronic Eye: The Rise of Surveillance Society, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minneapolis Press, 1994, p. 65.

“An even more recent book states the case more baldly: “[W]e have every reason to believe that cyberspace, left to itself, will not fulfill the promise of freedom. Left to itself, cyberspace will become a perfect tool of control” (Lawrence Lessig, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, NY: Basic Books, 2000, pp. 5-6).”

AND check out the articles in the Surveillance and Society’s “Foucault and Panopticism Revisited” issue of their Journal:

AND check out this article on some recent comments on the Panopticon Society and what is happening in Britain with ID cards and iris scans, etc.:

AND read “Who is watching you?” by Deborah Pierce, Seattle Press On-line,

AND for more from the Correctional News, CN Nov/Dec 06, Facility of the Month Nov/Dec 2006:

” A Centrifugal Force: A Round Addition in El Paso County, Colo., Updates a Historic Design”


” Each of the tower’s three floors contains a control room and an additional mezzanine level for extra bed space, giving the facility the appearance of having six floors.

“It’s based on the concentric ring theory,” says Greg Gulliksen, project architect. “The hub is the central control area in the middle; the next ring out is a circulation area around the control room; the next ring out is the dayroom; and the last ring contains the sleeping areas and the shower and toilet area.”

Each ward contains nine dormitory-style sleeping bays where inmates are grouped together without doors or bars. Each bay contains eight bunk beds and eight lockers.”


AND I saved the best for last:

The NYPD Panopticon Imprisons Harlem”, November 27, 2006, David W. Boles’ Urban Semiotic

“The Panopticon — a prison so built radially that a guard at a central position can see all the prisoners – is also known as the infamous and ever-vigilant Foucauldian unblinking eye of authority watching every move a prisoner makes while remaining rough and ready to strike punishment as often as needed, has come to the streets of Harlem as “Sky Watch.”

The Sky Watch, about two stories tall, consists of a booth for a cop that stands atop a tower that collapses when the officer is ready to leave.

The booth, which gives the cop a line of sight from 20 feet up, has four cameras, a high-powered spotlight and various sensors. The digital cameras, which continue recording when the booth is unstaffed, save the video to a hard drive.

The units, which cost from $40,000 to $100,000 apiece, are also being used by the U.S. Border Patrol and cops in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Dallas and Fort Worth.

NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said the department has leased one or two of the devices and hopes to eventually have five.

Since they’re moveable, they’re more flexible than fixed cameras.

One tower was installed about three weeks ago at 129th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem – drawing cheers and jeers.

What does this mean for the innocent residents of Harlem who now live in an open-air prison?

Here’s a traditional prison Panopticon where a central watchtower sits at the center of the structure surrounded by prisoners in their cells. The prisoners cannot see the watchtower but sunlight pouring through outer windowed cell walls shows all movement of the prisoners in shadow to the unblinking Panopticonic eye:

The Panopticon

[Several tiers of inmates in this round cell block at Stateville Prison near Joliet, Illinois, are easily visible from the guard tower in the middle.]

Here’s the Harlem Sky Watch box in action — have you ever seen an uglier obelisk wannabe? — where the sentry tower becomes the center tower of the Panopticon while the buildings and apartments surrounding it become the windowed prison cells from which there is no escape from the unblinking eye of punishment:

The Harlem Panopticon
The Harlem Panopticon

A watched cauldron never boils, but an observed populace ultimately overthrows its gaoler.

Just who are being protected in Harlem and just who are being watched?

The unblinking eye of authority stings us all from the NYPD Harlem Panopticon and we are all made more guilty because of it ominous presence.”



One response to “The Panopticon Singularity

  1. Great post. I was checking continuously this blog and I’m impressed! Extremely helpful info specifically the closing section 🙂 I take care of such information much. I was seeking this certain info for a very lengthy time. Thanks and best of luck.