Lentis/The Panopticon

The Panopticon is a concept derived from the Greek for "all-seeing." The term was first used to describe an architectural design developed by Jeremy Bentham for prisons in 1787, and was later adopted by Michel Foucault to describe modern methods of societal control.


Jeremy Bentham and the PanopticonEdit

A drawing of a panopticon prison by Willey Reveley, circa 1791. The cells are marked with (A); a skylight was to provide light and ventilation.[1]

Bentham first wrote about the panopticon in a series of letters penned from "Crecheff in Russia", which is likely referring to the city of Krichev in modern day Belarus, in 1787.[2][3] Although his plans never came to be, he explored in depth how the panopticon would make an effective prison building. His letters describe a circular building with prisoners' apartments, or cells, occupying the circumference, and an inspector's lodge occupying the center. The panopticon's cells are designed to restrict the prisoners' ability to see both other prisoners and the occupants of the inspector's lodge. Bentham envisioned that such a restriction would allow a single guard to monitor the entire prison; since prisoners could never know whether they are being monitored at any given time, they would thus constantly "feel themselves as if under inspection."[2]

In a collection of his work regarding the panopticon, Panopticon; Or, the Inspection-House, Bentham states that his design can be applied not just to prisons, but to any situation where people are to be kept under inspection. Bentham includes in this: "poor-houses, lazarettos, houses of industry, manufactories, hospitals, work-houses, mad-houses, and schools."

The first prison of this type, Millbank Prison, was built in 1821 according to Bentham's initial design. Despite the fact that Millbank was accused of causing mental illness in prisoners and Bentham objections to the exact method of the prison's management, there were eventually 54 more penitentiaries constructed throughout England according to the Panopticon model.

There have been many more Panopticons constructed globally since, but by far the most infamous is Cuba's Presidio Modelo. General mismanagement of the Presidio Modelo resulted in cramped conditions, meager food rations, and unsanitary quarters. Because of this inhumane treatment, it is difficult to isolate the precise psychological impact of the prison architecture.

Michel Foucault and PanopticismEdit

Michel Foucault, a French philosopher, explored Bentham's panopticon in his 1975 book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Foucault draws attention to the rise of the modern penitentiary-based penal system in the late 18th century, and argues that the panopticon is more than just a prison design, it represents a form of disciplinary social control that Foucault called panopticism.[4]

“The Panopticon [...] must be represented as a pure architectural and optical system: it is in fact a figure of political technology that may and must be detached from any specific use”[4]

Foucault's exploration of the panopticon and panopticism was mostly critical, calling the panopticon "a cruel, ingenious cage."

Digital PanopticonEdit


Sousveillance is recording from a person’s vantage point. The term was coined by Steve Mann as a contrast to surveillance. Steve Mann summarized sousveillance as "watchful vigilance from underneath." [5] Sousveillance can also be watching from under in a social sense, including monitoring a taxi driver's driving with video, student evaluation of a professor, and more.

Sousveillance can be seen as a reverse panopticon, where those in power are watched by the citizens. Mann et al. provide a parallel to "reflectionism," also coined by Mann,[6] where sousveillance observes the organizational observer. [7] Sousveillance, then, is a way to reverse the panopticon, observing the observer.

Sousveillance may also be watching through wearable technologies. Body cameras often provide accountability for law enforcement officers. However, the panopticon also plays a role, as it has been shown that behavior changes occur when police officers believe that they are being observed by body cameras. Arizona State University’s study of officers in the Maryville Precinct found “camera-wearing officers experienced a 22.5% declined in officially recorded complaints.”[8] This result was statistically significant.

Social MediaEdit

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and more encourage users to post updates about their life. Facebook’s mission is to “Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” [9] These updates can provide others with insight into the user’s lives without the knowledge that they are watching, simulating a panopticon.

Justine Sacco got fired from her job where she said “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” [10] Mark Meechan was charged £800 “for breaching the Communications Act 2003, by posting a grossly offensive video on the internet” of his girlfriend’s dog performing a Nazi salute to various phrases. [11] Social media is often used as a tool for posting about one’s life, but employers and law enforcement take advantage of the voluntary panopticon.


Life360 is an app which claims it “brings your family closer with smart features designed to protect and connect the people who matter most.” [12] It does this by sharing location, most frequented locations, and alerts with those on the app. The app aims to provide safety and assurance to its users.

Life360 can also be seen as a form of panopticon. Those on the app are constantly at risk of being watched, prompting reactance. Twitter user @OkiAli1 stated: “Hard to keep a secret if your phone has #Life360 to track your whereabouts. Big brother knows where you been. #ThingsYouDontTellYourSpouse.” [13] Twitter user @laurenfix claims that “Life360 is a must-have for all summer travel! It keeps families safe & connected, and even has Driver Protect features that include crash detection, roadside assistance and driver reports.” [14]

Teenagers who are monitored often use TikTok to post about Life360. TikTok user Paul Salva posted a video showing how to turn off mobile data to the app, leaving the location as the last known location and not giving a notification to those monitoring. [15] Many others on TikTok post similar content, or complaints about the app being too intrusive. TikTok user @katiefeeneyy stated: “the motto is: ‘Life360, brings families closer,’ when really it should be: ‘Life360, ruins a teenager’s social life.’” [16]

Panopticism in Traffic EnforcementEdit

Modes of Traffic SurveillanceEdit

Technologies used to enforce speed limits on roads in the United States echo many ideas of panopticism. Police use radar guns and speed cameras to monitor drivers. Like prisoners in Bentham's panopticon, drivers know that their speed may be tracked by these devices at any given moment, but do not know precisely when. Does this impact driver behavior? In one study, two groups of drivers in a simulated course were informed that speed cameras would issue financial penalties for speeding.[17] The first group was aware of the cameras' exact locations, while the second group was not. Marciano et al. found that drivers who were aware of camera position sped significantly between speed traps, but those unaware of camera position closely obeyed the speed limit, indicating that panoptic surveillance influenced behavior more than explicit surveillance.

Speed Limit Enforced by Aircraft sign.

"Speed Limit Enforced By Aircraft" signs indicate to drivers that their speed could be monitored, but do not provide a means of verifying if an aircraft is present. Some states that used to employ aircraft to catch speeders left the signs up after stopping aerial surveillance. For instance, the signs remain standing in Virginia, despite a cease in traffic enforcement flights in 2012 "because of the cost associated with operating an aircraft."[18] Lt. Hansen of the Iowa State Patron explained that “we put the signs up because we want you to know and obey the speed limit,” even though flights do not occur every day.[19] In an amendment establishing the aircraft enforcement program, the Virginia General Assembly ordered that the signs should be not just "to inform motorists," but also to be "a deterrent to speeders on the Interstate System."[20]

Subverting SurveillanceEdit

The National Motorists Association (NMA) is a self described "alliance of motorists" engaged in protecting the interests and rights of drivers. NMA opposes speed enforcement technologies on the grounds of technological limitations; specifically, NMA "opposes the use of photographic devices to issue tickets" because "it can generate false readings."[21]

Drivers use mobile applications to notify one another of police speed traps. One such app is Waze, which features the ability to report speed trap locations; other drivers are then informed of the location and know to slow down.[22]

Watchful NeighborsEdit

Some citizens frustrated by fast driving in residential areas find it advantageous to support traffic surveillance. Several police departments offer volunteers the opportunity to borrow a radar gun and use it to track vehicle speeds in their neighborhood. Although citizens cannot issue tickets, police departments typically offer to send letters warning offenders that they were caught speeding. Programs exist in Roselle, Illinois;[23] Deforest, Wisconsin;[24] Eugene, Oregon;[25] Naperville, Illinois;[26] and other localities.

Panopticism in the United KingdomEdit

Rise of CCTVs in the UKEdit

In the mid-1990s, the United Kingdom made a push to lower crime rates in response to attacks by the Irish Republican Army and high crime rates in the 1980s. This movement gained steam with the Partners Against Crime initiative in 1994 that spawned the CCTV Challenge Competition, a nationwide investment of £120 million in CCTV technology[27]. Since then, CCTVs have grown more common in British daily life. Oft-referred to as the "most watched nation," the UK now has an estimated 4-6 million CCTV cameras observing a population of just over 65 million, translating to roughly one camera for every eleven citizens[28].

Current Laws Governing CCTV UsageEdit

In 2016, Parliament passed the Investigatory Powers Act, amending the Intelligent Services Act of 1994. The Act allowed for certain interception of communications on behalf of the government, but added legal punishment for those who do so without a proper warrant.[29] The bill also requires that internet service providers store browsing history on every customer for a 12 month period. The Home Office said that the bill is meant to grant the government necessary abilities to identify and prevent domestic terrorism. Others are concerned about an infringement upon civil liberties, as the bill also legalizes “bulk equipment interference,” which can be interpreted as mass hacking of private devices.

The UK has laws limiting the scope of private surveillance. Any private camera that captures footage of any public property is subject to all of the same laws governing data storing that apply to government programs, according to the Protections of Freedoms Act of 2012. This restricts one’s ability to upload footage online or elsewhere, among other provisions. 

CCTVs and Crime RatesEdit

In the 1990s, 78% of the Home Office crime prevention budget was dedicated to public space surveillance systems.[30] The results have been mixed. Vehicle-related crime, including theft of and from vehicles, was reduced by 51% in locations with CCTVs compared to those without. Violent crime has been largely unaffected. Some posit that this is due to the impulsive nature of violent crime relative to other forms of crime.[31]

Law Enforcement and GovernmentEdit

In 2009, 95% of Scotland Yard murder cases were solved using CCTV footage as evidence.[27] Police departments are thus reluctant to scale back CCTV coverage in their locales. They advocate for smarter layouts and the use of CCTVs that minimize the need for monitoring and make better use of their resources. They do recognize, however, that private cameras outnumber public-owned cameras by a wide margin, and that private cameras play a significant role in crime prevention and investigation.


Organizations like Big Brother Watch and No CCTV are highly critical of current scale and policy governing CCTVs. The former has factsheets on their website that describe privacy policy in the UK in an attempt to educate citizens on their rights. They also speak out against CCTVs, including in sensitive areas like bathrooms and locker rooms.[32] No CCTV has a list of reports that contend that CCTVs do not make a significant impact on crime rates. To them, the cost of limiting civil liberties outweighs the benefits.[33]

In 2014, the UK government appointed Michael Porter as a surveillance watchdog. Some say that his powers are limited, while others critique his allegiance to the cause. He has spoken out publicly on the dangers of increasing surveillance, as it could change “the psyche of the community” in the UK.[34]

Cultural InfluenceEdit

The proliferation of surveillance has affected popular media in the UK. The popular TV show Black Mirror, created by humorist Charlie Brooker, criticizes surveillance in the episode "The Entire History of You", where people all have implanted cameras and can replay any moment from their lives, leading to turmoil when a man suspects his wife of having an affair based on a single moment from a party.

Another episode, Nosedive, is heavily critical of social media and the pressure to perform it places on its users. In the episode, everyone has a rating of one to five stars based on personal interactions which determines social standing. The episode addresses the idea of the Digital Panopticon in that the actions people take are based on the observation and judgment of others, and nobody feels truly free until they know they are not being observed.


Behavioral changesEdit

Panopticism contends that people tend to follow the rules when they think they are being monitored. This idea is largely validated by studies on speed limit enforcement.[17] Drivers who were aware of surveillance but uncertain of its implementation followed the speed limit. Real world traffic enforcement tactics, such as "Speed Limit Enforced By Aircraft Signs" that are unaccompanied by aircraft, attempt to put this principle into practice. Questions remain regarding the efficacy these modern panopticons. How consistently do real world panoptic techniques change the behavior of the observed? How significantly do people shift their behavior when they think they are being watched?

Expanding surveillance capabilitiesEdit

Modern surveillance technology has progressed far beyond what was possible when the panopticon was developed. As both case studies discussed here show, panopticism is no longer limited to architectural designs. Cameras and information technologies enable surveillance to occur covertly in public and private settings. Laws like the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) in the US, which requires telecommunications carriers and manufacturers of telecommunications equipment to comply with requests for customer information from law enforcement agencies, enable surveillance in ever-increasing quantities and locations.[35]

With the rise of the internet, surveillance is expanding beyond physical monitoring, and collected information is more detailed than ever. Companies like Google can create personalized profiles of individuals based on their web traffic data.[36] CALEA also now includes providers of broadband Internet and VoIP, giving law enforcement access to Internet data such as email. Surveillance capabilities in the cyber world open up new sets of questions concerning privacy that would be interesting topics for future investigations into modern panopticism.

Balance of powerEdit

Just as Bentham and Foucault predicted, panopticon-like technologies can give watchers power over those being watched. However, real world case studies demonstrate that the power dynamics are more complicated in practice than in theory. Subjects of surveillance can use applications like Waze to resist and subvert surveillance. Other groups, such as citizen radar enforcement volunteers, embrace surveillance technologies, expanding the scope of the panoptic gaze.

Power consolidationEdit

The expanding surveillance capabilities of modern technology put the power of surveillance into the hands of fewer people, mirroring Bentham's vision that a single guard could be capable of monitoring an entire prison. Concentrating the power of surveillance increases the weight given to the agendas of those in power. This raises significant ethical questions. Who gets to decide how many people are monitored and when? How much information should be able to be collected about a person? It also raises privacy questions. When is it okay to monitor people without their permission? Do the organizations in power ever need permission? What if the information was publicly accessible, like on social media? Questions about modern law enforcement are also relevant. How can collected information be used? What about information that was collected without permission?


  1. Bentham Papers 119a/119. UCL Press. pp. 137. 
  2. a b Bentham, J. (1787). Panopticon; or The Inspection House. http://lf-oll.s3.amazonaws.com/titles/1925/0872.04_Bk.pdf
  3. Peters, Michael A. (2017), “Disciplinary Technologies and the School in the Epoch of Digital Reason: Revisiting Discipline and Punish after 40 Years,” Contemporary Readings in Law and Social Justice 9(1): 28–46.
  4. a b Foucault, M. (1977). Panopticism. In Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books. https://foucault.info/doc/documents/disciplineandpunish/foucault-disciplineandpunish-panopticism-html
  5. Mann, S. (2002, March 1). Sousveillance, not just surveillance, in response to terrorism. http://wearcam.org/metalandflesh.htm
  6. Mann S. (1998) 'Reflectionism' and 'diffusionism': new tactics for deconstructing the video surveillance superhighway. Leonardo, 31(2): 93-102.
  7. Mann, S., Nolan, J., & Wellman, B. (2002). Sousveillance: Inventing and Using Wearable Computing Devices for Data Collection in Surveillance Environments. Surveillance & Society, 1(3), 331–355. doi: 10.24908/ss.v1i3.3344
  8. Katz, Charles M., David E. Choate, Justin R. Ready, & Lidia Nuňo. (2014). Evaluating the Impact of Officer Worn Body Cameras in the Phoenix PoliceDepartment.Phoenix, AZ: Center for Violence Prevention & Community Safety, Arizona State University.
  9. About Facebook. (n.d.). https://www.facebook.com/pg/facebookapp/about/.
  10. Ronson, J. (2015, February 12). How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco's Life. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/15/magazine/how-one-stupid-tweet-ruined-justine-saccos-life.html.
  11. PF v Mark Meechan. (n.d.). http://www.scotland-judiciary.org.uk/8/1962/PF-v-Mark-Meechan.
  12. Life360. (n.d.). https://www.life360.com/.
  13. @OkiAli1 (2019, September 5). https://twitter.com/OkiAli1/status/1169770827212034048.
  14. @laurenfix (2019, July 1). https://twitter.com/laurenfix/status/1145826117900808193.
  15. @paulsalva (n.d.). https://www.tiktok.com/@paulsalva/video/6755593683841649926
  16. @katiefeeneyy (n.d.). https://www.tiktok.com/@katiefeeneyy/video/6721041895734136070
  17. a b Marciano, H., Setter, P., & Norman, J. (2015). Overt vs. covert speed cameras in combination with delayed vs. immediate feedback to the offender. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 79(Supplement C), 231–240. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aap.2015.03.028
  18. Koon, S. (2012, November 11). Aerial speed enforcement falls off state’s radar. The Daily Progress. Retrieved from http://www.dailyprogress.com/news/article_8fccad38-2c49-11e2-90a1-001a4bcf6878.html
  19. Bittel, J. (2013, May 30). Do Police Really Use Aircraft to Enforce Speed Limits? Slate. http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2013/05/30/_speed_limit_enforced_by_aircraft_do_police_really_do_that.html
  20. General Assembly of Virginia. (2000, June 12). An Act to amend and reenact § 46.2-882 of the Code of Virginia. http://www.virginiadot.org/business/resources/traffic_engineering/memos2/TE-298_Speed_Determination.pdf
  21. National Motorist’s Association. (n.d.). NMA Objections To Speed Cameras. https://www.motorists.org/issues/speed-cameras/objections/
  22. Waze (2017) Waze - GPS, Maps, Traffic Alerts & Live Navigation. Google Play Store. https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.waze&hl=en
  23. Citizen Assisted Radar Enforcement Program | Roselle, IL - Official Website. (n.d.). http://www.roselle.il.us/315/Citizen-Assisted-Radar-Enforcement-Progr
  24. Speedwatch. (n.d.). http://www.vi.deforest.wi.us/index.asp?Type=B_BASIC&SEC=%7B002C5838-75DB-4A8B-A907-60AAE54A54E8%7D
  25. Citizen Radar Program | Eugene, OR Website. (n.d.). Retrieved December 11, 2017, from https://www.eugene-or.gov/2759/Citizen-Radar-Program
  26. Citizens Take Control of Radar Patrol : NPR. (n.d.). https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=15835075
  27. a b The End of the CCTV Era? BBC News. (2015, January 15). http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-30793614
  28. Buchanan, Michael. UK ‘most watched nation’ by CCTV. BBC News. (2009, July 21). http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk/8160757.stm
  29. Investigatory Powers Act 2016. UK National Archives. (2016, November 29). http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2016/25/part/1/crossheading/overview-and-general-privacy-duties/enacted
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  31. The Effects of CCTV on Crime. The College of Policing. (2009). http://library.college.police.uk/docs/what-works/What-works-briefing-effects-of-CCTV-2013.pdf
  32. CCTV in Schools – Renate Samson. Sky News. (2017, November 15). https://bigbrotherwatch.org.uk/all-media/sky-news-cctv-in-schools-renate-samson/
  33. The Case Against – Reports. No CCTV. (2013). http://www.no-cctv.org.uk/caseagainst/reports.asp
  34. Weaver, Matthew. UK Public must wake up to risks of CCTV, says surveillance commissioner. (2015, January 6). https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/06/tony-porter-surveillance-commissioner-risk-cctv-public-transparent
  35. FCC. (2017, October 5). Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act. Federal Communications Commission. December 10, 2017, https://www.fcc.gov/public-safety-and-homeland-security/policy-and-licensing-division/general/communications-assistance
  36. Google, 2017. Advertising and Privacy. December 10, 2017.