The cyber surveillance dilemma: Foucault, Hobbes, and Mill weigh in

In 2014, researchers at MIT published data suggesting that, post-Snowden, Google users are increasingly reluctant to search for terms that might arouse the suspicion of the US government.

The conclusion? We now think our online movements are being tracked by a higher power, and we’re starting to police ourselves.

And the trend for “self-regulation” seems likely to keep growing, since governments in 14 of a sample of 65 countries—democracies and authoritarian regimes alike—passed new laws to increase surveillance in 2014/15, and many more upgraded their surveillance equipment. This was despite concerns from the UN Human Rights Committee that these measures “inherently infringe on the privacy rights of all.” *

More recently, the US government’s pressure on Apple to build a “backdoor into the iPhone” that would, if created for one terrorism-related case, enable ongoing access to data on any iPhone in someone’s physical possession, and the UK’s Investigatory Powers Bill—the legalities of which are currently under scrutiny by a European Committee—have brought the rights of governments to access our personal data under the microscope.

All of this begs larger questions: in what circumstances (if any) should governments have the right to interfere in our lives? Is the balance between individual privacy and public security in danger of tipping too far in one direction? And when does protecting society from harm infringe on our individual liberties?


Surveillance in the age of terrorism: Hobbes and Mill on the rights of power

Does the state have a right to interfere with an individual’s liberty? What if the result of that interference would benefit the individual, or protect society has a whole? Both Thomas Hobbes and John Stuart Mill explored these complicated topics in their most famous works, profoundly influencing how we see our relationship with the state to this day.

People should submit to the decisions of an absolute power for their own good, argued Hobbes in his 1651 work Leviathan: otherwise, human beings will slip into a chaotic “state of nature” and “the war of all against all” will follow.

Asking the reader to imagine what society would be like without a state, Hobbes argued that the people of a nation should put their faith in a strong central government. It is best for society, Hobbes argued, if the state decided which ideas were conducive to peace, and which were dangerous.

However, a state that wields absolute power was only half of Hobbes’ recommendation He also suggested that a leader should respect the “social contract” that exists between the state and its people. Part of the role of leadership requires protection of the weak in society, he argued, and a ruler’s power over his subjects should only exist as long as it brings them protection.

John Stuart Mill’s 1859 work On Liberty took this idea of a “social contract” further, concluding that a government should only interfere in an individual’s liberty if it means preventing that individual from harming another.

Mill’s benchmark for deciding what counts as legitimate interference is called the “harm principle.” It states that a government or society can only exercise power over an individual if that person’s behaviour would cause harm to other members of society. It’s not enough just to claim interference is for someone’s “own good.”

A strong theme running through On Liberty is that individuality is supremely valuable, both to personal happiness and by allowing progress toward the wisdom that can lead us, collectively, to a better society. However, one unanswered problem that stems from Mill’s work is the nature of the balance that needs to be struck between individual freedom and the state’s obligation to ensure social justice.


What Hobbes and Mill can teach us about 21st-century surveillance

If we vote our politicians into power, do they have the right to make decisions about our online privacy, if they believe those decisions can help protect us from terrorists? In a world of seven billion people, where nations and regions are endlessly combining or splintering, there are many powerful and competing definitions of freedom. Just as Hobbes wrote Leviathan in the face of England’s radical—if temporary—rejection of its monarchy during and after the Civil War, and Mill was writing amid the social upheaval of industrialization, so we must now take account of the shift in world power as a result of the digital age.

But the philosophers’ works triggered an important and continuing debate on the fundamental issues around what constitutes freedom, truth, security, and personal happiness. As the world copes with a new era of revolution and social upheaval, it is useful to understand their defenses of a certain dominant view of freedom—and to decide whether they still apply in today’s world.


Mind control for the 21st century: Foucault on the discipline of surveillance

In his influential work Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975) Michel Foucault saw the dynamics of the modern prison at work in a range of institutions, including factories, hospitals, schools and barracks. Foucault departs from the idea of power as something exerted by the government, by a king, or by those with material wealth. Power, he says, is “discipline,” a term which Foucault uses to describe power used to make the individual self-regulate.

Taking the penal system as an example, Foucault argues that although mind control via surveillance is more peaceful than punishments like execution and torture, it’s just as powerful. He explains that social institutions exercise power and discipline on the bodies and souls of their subjects through the “gaze.”

In order to explain this argument, Foucault turns to a discussion of the Panopticon, a model for a prison invented by the British social reformer Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century.

The circular structure of the Panopticon—whose illuminated cells are arranged around a central watchtower—was designed to allow guards to observe their prisoners undetected, resulting in self-regulation.

The Panopticon inmates can never tell when they are being observed, so they will behave all the time, just in case they are. Foucault suggests that the Panopticon and the mechanisms of power it contains extend beyond the prison and into other institutions of society.


What Foucault can teach us about 21st-century surveillance

In the 21st century, an era in which we share information on the condition that it is subject to the gaze of others via social media, this self-regulation has reached a new peak: we are both the monitors and the monitored. Publish something controversial on social media and you accept the consequences, whether your punishment is dished out by an angry mob, a “troll,” or the police.

If the Investigatory Powers Bill is passed, browser history and call data will be legally collected and held by UK Internet Service Providers and services like Facebook, Google and Apple for 12 months. This data can then be passed to police and government agencies when required, presumably ushering in a new era of self-policing in the UK that could echo the post-Snowden shift in the United States.

According to Foucault, surveillance by government institutions produces “docile bodies,” which Foucault defines as people who can be monitored and psychologically controlled, and who are then trained to self-govern. Put simply, we are the sum of what we abstain from doing for fear of being seen, judged, or punished.

The process by which we become “docile” and start to accept being under surveillance was used to full effect by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg back in 2010. Speaking in defense of a new privacy policy that would make status updates public unless the user specified otherwise, Zuckerberg said: “Doing a privacy change for 350 million users is not the kind of thing that a lot of companies would do.

“But we viewed that as a really important thing, [to question] what would we do if we were starting the company now and we decided that these would be the social norms now and we just went for it.”

Facebook was able to alter the privacy settings for what was then 350 million people (now 1.5 billion) in effect by saying “this is what people do.” While the move angered campaigners, there was not enough public outcry to force the company into reversing its position.

In an eerie mirroring of the power structure of the Panopticon, a process of normalization appears to have “increased both the docility and utility” of Facebook’s members.


What Hobbes, Mill, and Foucault can teach us about online surveillance

The very modern notions of digital surveillance and online self-regulation would have no doubt raised the eyebrows of Hobbes, Mill, and Foucault—three of the most influential thinkers in history.

The balance of individual freedoms and the role of the state for protection are at the heart of their most influential works, and their ideas can help us get a deeper understanding of the complicated (and controversial) issues surrounding how and why we might be “watched” online.

With governments and even corporate companies tightening their surveillance measures further each year—and consumer tech companies fighting back on behalf of the public—the historical root of debates and lessons surrounding the consequences of such measures is invaluable for helping us decide where the line must be drawn.


Get a deeper understanding of Hobbes, Mill, and Foucault’s ideas

Read more about why Discipline and Punish, On Liberty, and Leviathan are still important today on our easy-to-read expert analyses:



Freedom on the Net 2015, Freedom House

Featured image by thierry ehrmann on Flickr