| | |

The Racialized Panopticon: There’s an App for That

This post is Part One of a two-part discussion addressing this October 13th article in The Washington Post. The story describes the effects of a private app called GroupMe that enables users to send out real-time notices of suspicious activity in the neighborhood. In this first post, Ami Stearns suggests that the concept of the Panopticon can be applied to the racialized nature of this smartphone surveillance app. 


“Big Brother is Watching.” That’s the famous phrase from George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, and the theme of a popular TV series where every move of the cast is recorded every moment of the day. In the late 1700s, the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham envisioned a building that enabled a single, invisible, watchman to monitor everyone. This building design could be applied to prisons, schools, factories, asylums, and hospitals. Bentham theorized that this “Panopticon,” as it became known, would confer power to those performing the surveillance, largely because those inside the facility would know they were being watched at all times, but were unsure when exactly the eyes were upon them. He argued that this would address any behavior problems. A more modern example can be seen in most retail establishments. The shopper may see a sign with something like, “Smile, you’re on camera” or may see the large cameras themselves in the ceiling. Whether or not anyone is actually monitoring the consumer at that very second is unknown, but it is this threat of being watched that works to convince people not to steal or misbehave.

In some countries, closed circuit televisions (CCTV) cover much more than an individual store or restaurant- these cameras capture streets, sidewalks, the subway, and entire neighborhoods. So, a heavily CCTV-saturated place like the UK should be the safest on earth, right? Actually, an evaluation undertaken by highly-regarded Campbell Collaboration suggests this mass surveillance only has a “modest” impact on crime rates.

What I’ve talked about above are different forms of generalized surveillance, not surveillance that is targeted toward specific groups or people who “look” a certain way. What if a camera only switched on to record a shopper if that shopper “looked suspicious?” What if motion detector lights flashed on only if the person walking by fit a certain profile? Is that okay? What if I told you that this is already taking place and that it is as easy as using an app?

Apps such as GroupMe are being used in some neighborhoods to alert fellow app users when “suspicious persons” are spotted. In a shopping neighborhood in Washington DC’s Georgetown, use of this system has come under fire for becoming increasingly racialized. The “Operation GroupMe” project, an admirable attempt to curb shoplifting in the neighborhood, quickly became a racialized Panopticon. This brings an entirely new dimension not only to the surveillance of targeted groups but also to the negative experience of “shopping while black.”

Those who have been granted the authority to download and use the app (in this case, the mainly White, upper class shopkeepers in the DC neighborhood) now have the power and ability to monitor those deemed unworthy. Big Brother is no longer an indiscriminate gaze, instead, he is transformed into a watcher who only tracks certain types of people. What is becoming increasingly apparent is that these apps are racialized. Some, such as SketchFactor received so much public outcry against its racial stereotyping that the app has since vanished.

French sociologist Michel Foucault wrote a book called Discipline and Punish in 1975. In this text, Foucault argues that the Panopticon is not a physical design, but a metaphor for the way modern society watches its citizens and successfully normalizes this constant surveillance. I would argue for another Panopticon, a decentralized and deconstructed Panopticon. The many eyes of the Panopticon have been freed from the single watchtower and instead, peer out from our own smartphones. The Panopticon, now decentralized, can focus on targeted members of society and can be controlled in a discriminatory manner. These targeted members of society, it turns out, are overwhelmingly African American.

It has become normal for us to be watching one another. We believe that our personal safety depends on it. However, the question we must ask ourselves is what aspect of our individuality and humanity is lost when our “watching” turns into outright discrimination? In part two we will attempt to answer this question by examining the racial inequality this form of app surveillance creates.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Have you or anyone that you know been followed in a store because you were a part of a certain group?
  2. Do you believe that such targeted surveillance is a good idea or a poor idea? Make a list of pros and cons of shopkeepers in the same area using an app like GroupMe.
  3. Read this article about the Next Door app and apply the concept of The Panopticon. How is this app more effective than “Neighborhood Watch” signs?
  4. Watch this video about a lawsuit against the drugstore CVS. Explain the difference between generalized surveillance and targeted surveillance.