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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 30, New Delhi, July 11, 2020

Revisiting the concepts of Panopticon and Synopticon: An inquiry into naturalisation of totalitarian surveillance in the name of covid19 pandemic | Gopal Krishna

Saturday 11 July 2020, by Gopal Krishna


by Gopal Krishna


Both ideas and ideologies have decisive killing effect.Derived from two Greek words which means "all-seeing", the original idea of panopticon was that of a prison conceived and designed to ensure perfect comprehensive surveillance of the prisoners. Panopticon refers to “the few seeing the many”. In this architecture, all those humans who have been made sub-humans through their categorisation as prisoners are under the inspection of few inspectors. Its re-incarnation as digital panopticon has enabled it to envelop the entire human population and subject them to eternal inspection. This idea has magnified manifold. Its merger with the idea of synopticon is paving the way for 360˚ surveillance of every imaginable human activity. Synopticon refers to "the many seeing the few". Unlike panopticon, in syopticona small “risk group” is put under the constant gaze of a large section of population who happen to believe them to be part of a “risk-group”. For long synopticon has been deemed to be the reverse of the panopticon. It does not mean that both cannot work in tandem. After profiling through mass-surveillance using panopticon, the “risk-group” is singled-out and subjected to synopticon. The latter is also used to legitimize the former in the public sphere through apparent ground truthing of sort in order to set the agenda of “what people think about” and “how they think about it”. While Habermasian rationality is embodied in linguistic communication, apparent rationality or system rationality of the proponents of panoptic and synoptic technologies is embodied in intelligence and predictability inferred from “meta data”. The latter seems callous towards the truthful inquiry into the human condition and confines itself to subjective-instrumental inquiry. It is blind to the far reaching implications of permanent storage of meta data. Some aspects of it have been underlined in several verdicts of courts in Europe. Meta data refers to “indiscriminate and disproportionate data collection” regarding all aspects of a person (telephone number and Internet Protocol address, biometrics, demographic details, authentication records, transactions etc). Such exercise is undertaken using these technologies without adherence to the principles of consent, purpose and storage limitation, data differentiation, data exception, data minimization, substantive and procedural fairness, safeguards, transparency, data protection and security. Meta data is a soft target for internal, external, indigenous and foreign attacks. It admittedly creates the biggest risk of a single point of failure.

It all began with a pamphlet. In his pamphlet titled Proposal for a New and Less Expensive mode of Employing and Reforming Convicts (1798), Jeremy Bentham, the founder of British "utilitarianism" provided the details of the prisoner surveillance system where there is a circular building, the prisoners are in their cells, occupying the circumference and the inspectors are in the centre who remain concealed from the observation of the prisoners. This design creates a sentiment of omnipresence because the whole circuit is reviewable with almost no change of place and ensuring “most perfect view of every cell." Prior to this Panopticon or, the Inspection-House was mentioned in a series of letters written by Bentham in 1787 from Russia to a friend in England. It contained the idea of a new principle of construction applicable to any sort of establishment, in which persons of any description are to be kept under inspections like penitentiary houses, prisons, manufactories, houses of industry, mad-houses, work-houses, lazarettos, poor-houses, hospitals and schools. The third session of 17th British parliament mentioned Bentham’s panoptican scheme for the first time in May 1793. Bentham’s separate pamphlet titled Pauper Management Improved; Particularly by Means of an Application of the Panopticon Principle of Construction (1812) was published in 1797, which was first published in Young’s Annals of Agriculture in 1797-98 as a series of seven letters titled Situation and Relief of the Poor. What was initiated for prisoners’ surveillance soon got extended for the workers, hospitals, schools, medical patients and the poor. The idea of constant surveillance relied on the power of the panopticon, a work of architecture which could be applied to every aspect of life. In 1975, Michel Foucault revisited the concept of panopticon in his book Discipline and Punish to underline how panopticon is used to subjugate citizens through asymmetrical surveillance. His observations have assumed relevance in the face of big data guided social control technologies.

In his paper The Viewer Society: Michel Foucault’s ’Panopticon’ revisited (1997), sociologist Thomas Mathiesen has argued that control through surveillance has moved beyond Bentham’s and Foucault’s panopticon model, which allowed the few to monitor the many. A moment has arrived wherein many are monitoring the few as well. This is quite evident in the current situation where the cadres of a ruling party with brute electoral majority in parliamentary democracies begin to identify and monitor minorities, migrants and their defenders with ulterior vindictive motives.

Automatic identification technologies and applications are facilitating stigmatization, discrimination, and physical assaults on “risk groups”. A growing convergence between the beneficial owners of these technologies and the State is creating a Technopolis where squeezing of natural rights through greater panoptic and synoptic gaze and manipulation of public behaviour is deemed natural and normal. In the present era, the panoptic gaze focuses on the entire human population but its specific focus on minorities, migrants and their defenders is disconcerting especially, because their fate awaits the rest of the society in subsequent phases.

The emergence of computer, smart mobile phones and social media platforms like Facebook as an “information panopticon and synopticon” has enabled monitoring of the work and behaviour of individuals through eternal scrutiny. The individuals and groups can always be watched but they cannot see the eyes that watch them. The poor and “risk groups” are being profiled for the umpteenth time by identification technologies. The cumulative effect of both the gazes have disempowering implications wherein human agency gets eroded and consequent in failure to assert human personhood amidst manufactured hostile discourse.

The 1500 page long manifesto titled 2083: A European Declaration of Independence brought out by Norwegian gunman and neo-Crusader, Anders Behring Breivik who carried out the heinous attacks by bombing government buildings in Oslo killing his fellow citizens on 22 July 2011 is quite relevant in the present climate in India. This manifesto refers to the word “identity” over 100 times, “unique” over 40 times and “identification” over 10 times. There is reference to “state-issued identity cards”, “converts’ identity cards”, “identification card”, “fingerprints”, “DNA” etc. The proponents of electronic-biometric identification of residents and software applications like AarogaSetu and related schemes seem to have internalized the biases and prejudices of likes Brevik by endorsing explicit and implicit racism.

In the name of pandemic

Every situation of crisis and disaster is being exploited for commercial profit, akin to fishing in the troubled waters with with the assistance of donors of of the ruling parties and beneficial owners of big data technologies. Amidst Covid-19 public health disaster, Union of India has decriminalized numerous corporate crimes by amending Companies Act, 2013 through an ordinance. In fact, over 700 notifications, the delegated legislations have been issued by the Government of India alone. This has been done in a situation where legislative oversight has been made non-operational after hurriedly pushing through executive work in the legislature amidst the pandemic unmindful of the vulnerability of legislators who were ordered by the Chairman of Rajya Sabha, the Upper House of Parliament to remove their masks in the face of resistance. Besides the central notifications, state governments too have passed hundreds of such notifications in the absence of any scrutiny by legislatures. These unilateral legislative measures are likely to have deleterious impact on natural rights of present and future citizens.

In a related development, Government of India launched AarogyaSetu (Healthy Bridge) App-a software application for disease surveillance which is supposed to connect citizens with health services and provide information regarding Covid-19 with the claim that by using it users can assess the risk of catching the Covid-19 infection. It was launched on 2 April 2020. Reacting to its launch, leader of the biggest opposition party in the Lower House of Parliament, Rahul Gandhi observed, “The ArogyaSetu app, is a sophisticated surveillance system, outsourced to a private operator, with no institutional oversight - raising serious data security & privacy concerns. Technology can help keep us safe; but fear must not be leveraged to track citizens without their consent.” In doing so, he articulated the concerns expressed in a joint representation to the Prime Minister’s Office which was endorsed by 45 organisations and more than 100 individuals against the mandatory use of the AarogyaSetu App. This representation was sent subsequent to direction by India’s Ministry of Home Affairs for making its use mandatory for "100% coverage". It made not using the App an offence. AarogyaSetu does not factor in salutary provisions of the proposed Digital Information Security in Healthcare Act. This proposed law makes anonymization and de-identification of data of patients mandatory.

To begin with, the government claimed that the use of AarogyaSetu is voluntary but now downloading of the app has been made mandatory. The same strategy has been deployed in the case of 12-digit Unique Identity unique identification (UID)/Aadhaar numbers assigned to the residents of India. Initially, UID/Aadhaar too was declared “voluntary” and subsequently it has been made mandatory through a Money Bill, which has been detected to be constitutionally questionable by a 5-Judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court of India.

The enforcement of AarogyaSetu has been challenged the High Courts which have issued notice to the government in the matter. Justice B.N. Srikrishna, former judge of Supreme Court of India and Chairman of Expert Committee on Data Protection Framework has termed it “utterly illegal”. It is apparent that such applications are being pushed by e-commerce and platform economy czars who benefit from monetization of personal sensitive information. Indian Supreme Court’s verdict has underlined that the government may collect and process health data of individuals during epidemics to design appropriate policy interventions but such data must be anonymized. AarogyaSetu app could be misused for profiling and mass surveillance even after the COVID-19 outbreak is over”. It has increased the vulnerability of the communities, migrants and their defenders who get profiled. Profiling facilitates emergence of a police state. In this context, ‘profiling’ means any form of automated processing of personal data consisting of the use of personal data to evaluate certain personal aspects relating to a natural person, in particular to analyse or predict aspects concerning that natural person’s performance at work, economic situation, health, personal preferences, interests, reliability, behaviour, location or movements. Such profiling has resulted in violence and discrimination based on religion, ethnicity, caste and class. There are anecdotal oral narratives which reveal how existing databases like census and electoral database in the possession of state has been leaked to facilitate the perpetrators of mass violence. Such violence is also aimed at the disruption of economic activities of the minorities, migrants and those who are portrayed to be of a different race, religion, region, ethnicity and beliefs. The resentment against the relative economic prosperity of those who are supposedly non-natives or risk groups gets manifested when their economic activities are subjected to both panoptic and synoptic gaze. It is increasingly evident that surveillance is a decisive economic operator. Electronic-commerce platforms draw heavily on it to reduce the cost of distance in trade. These platforms have reduced the cost of distance in trade by 60%. Data collected through profiling is harming individuals, local businesses and non-employee societies in particular by keeping a permanent record about them. This is unfolding in a situation where national legislatures have failed to keep pace with the unprecedented speed of non-neutral technological innovations promoted by the beneficial owners of database and surveillance technology firms.

Victim blaming syndrome

By now it is clear that minority communities and internal migrants who are the worst victims of Covid-19 related public health disaster were in no way responsible for the spread of this pandemic, some 1.5 million people who came from abroad contributed to its spread. One day prior to the date of the announcement of the lockdown in India, on 23 March 2020 only 84 districts were affected. By 9 April, 284 districts were affected. Out of these 733 districts, as of 19 April 2020, 406 districts were affected. By May 7 2020, 517 districts were affected. It spread to 550 districts by May 17, 2020. As of 15 June 2020, 359 districts have had at least one death. Government is yet to receive reports of epidemiologists which can help it to arrive at any understanding of the distribution and determination of the infectious disease in question. The adoption of ostrich policy since January 2020 has aggravated the public health situation districts. Gujarat is the worst-affected state of India. Only four states- Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Delhi, out of 28 states and 8 union territories- account for 68% of the total cases in the country. After 90 days of lockdown, as of 22 June 2020, as many as 174387Covid-19 active cases have been detected, 237195 cases have been cured/discharged and there have been 13699 deaths. This situation reveals that unplanned lockdown has not yielded effective health outcomes. India has become the fourth worst-hit nation after the US, Brazil and Russia because it is yet to learn lessons from countries which have successfully dealt with Covid-19.

In the absence of competent district-based hospitals, India might be taking the US route with minimal budgetary allocation for health care facilities. Meanwhile, it has come to light that US based consulting firm, Boston Consulting Group (BCG) with no expertise in public health crisis is helping the government prepare “for the fight against COVID-19” without disclosing the nature of commercial relationship between BCG and its client, the government. It has stationed itself in the control room of India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and claims to work with its client to do “scenario mapping, planning responses and analyzing trends”. The government remains unmindful of the fact that history of epidemics and lessons of epidemiology reveals that public health is a national security issue as well because it is concerned with very existence and well-being of present and future Indians and their neighbours.

The social stigma associated with victims of Covid-19 in general and minority communities and migrants in particular have culminated into increased hostility, chaos, and unnecessary social disruptions. Such uncritical and unreasoned narratives which have been encouraged and nurtured by ruling parties has wider ramifications. It goes beyond victims of the disease and communities which have been mischievously categorized as risk groups. Government has admitted that “Cases have been reported of people affected with COVID-19 as well as healthcare workers, sanitary workers and police, who are in the frontline for management of the outbreak, facing discrimination on account of heightened fear and misinformation about infection. Even those who have recovered from COVID-19 face such discrimination. Further, certain communities and areas are being labelled purely based on false reports floating in social media and elsewhere”. This is recorded in an unsigned note of Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India addressed to “all responsible citizens”.

The ministry advises “all responsible citizens” to “never spread names or identity of those affected or under quarantine or their locality on the social media...Do not label any community or area for spread of COVID-19. Avoid addressing those under treatment as COVID victims. Address them as ‘people recovering from COVID’”. Circumstantial evidence suggests that this unisigned note was apparently issued to appear non-partisan in the face of hostility towards “risk groups”. In this way, the government has acknowledged that stigmatization and labelling of certain communities have reached an alarming situation wherein it felt so compelled that it had to issue an unsigned note addressed to “all responsible citizens”. In a seemingly unrelated incident but as part of weaving a hostile narrative, one 29 years old prominent parliamentarian from the ruling party tweeted about Arab women’s sex and motherhood which he was forced to delete after it triggered massive public outrage. Not only that the reaction from Arab countries, including UAE, Kuwait and Oman over ‘discrimination’ against minorities amidst the COVID-19 crisis made the office of Prime Minister of India say that “COVID-19 does not see race, religion, colour, caste, creed, language or borders before striking. Our response and conduct thereafter should attach primacy to unity and brotherhood.” This response came as a consequence of international attention and reaction which brought disrepute to the stature of the country among the comity of nations. The government had to issue such measured clarifications to avert any possibility of chilling effect on investments from aboard besides employment amidst covid-19 crisis. In a moment of truth relevant to country’s stature, it has claimed to have undone what was done in six decades. The portrayal of victims as risk group helps it to cover up inadequacies of government’s “war” on the Covid-19. The fact remains war narratives cannot conquer public health disasters. Like the “risk group” narrative, it diverts attention from the core public policy issues. It creates an ecosystem where government can extract unlimited coercive power. It undermines the questions of accountability of democratic public institutions which seem to have been put under illegitimate quarantine. It acts as a political escape route for its colossal failure in early recognition of the Covid-19 health disaster given the fact that as late as 13 March 2020, government kept declaring that there was no public health emergency.

Nominally human 

Prejudices that result from dissemination of unreasoned, half reasoned and motivated information purveyed as news envelops the public sphere. It turns humans into sub-humans and non-humans. It acts as a robber of human personhood. Such robbery is being practiced in a climate of dangerous discourse against the minority communities and migrants of all shades. Individuals who hold views contrary to the “approved” narrative and defenders of victims of past and ongoing injustices face the same treatment. The construction of such architecture of unreasoned threat perception is aimed at cutting asunder the folks imagined to be inconvenient, from the rest of the society. The latter too are being enveloped simultaneously in the same web but on different grounds.

The marginalized and diverse forms of minority groups and dissenters who give voice to the former are increasingly facing isolation, defamation, dehumanization and criminalization akin to illegitimate but legal declaration of certain communities as criminal tribes by the colonial rulers in the aftermath of India’s First War of Independence in 1857. Some 10.5 million individuals continue to be considered as “criminal by birth”, a classic case of adopting flawed biological determinism. This was because the law which criminalized some 200 tribes “to enable the police to exercise constant surveillance over the movement and behaviour of such tribes. This arrangement caused considerable harassment and hardships to these tribes, castes and communities and adversely affected their lifestyles and sustenance”. This law was repealed in 1952 and another law was enacted in its place but it has hardly been helpful because it has re-stigmatised the so-called criminal tribes as “habitual offenders”. Although in 2018 Indian government assured the Parliament that the latter too will be repealed soon but so far it has not happened. The process of stigmatization and labelling people with dishonoured titles continues through myriad registrations and now new communities have been singled out for similar treatment by the State in articulate and inarticulate ways and through exercise of active silence, passive silence and unsigned notes.

The personal sensitive information of individuals gathered through such registrations has been made a tradable commodity in the political market. The “risk groups” including the minority communities, migrants and their defenders have been transformed into “nominally human” because the State and its partners use the word human only for the people they like, endorse, approve and who are their kind of people, not the ones who are disliked, despised, dishonoured, stigmatized, imprisoned and condemned. There is an identifiable historical pattern in India and elsewhere wherein minority groups, migrants and dissenters have been portrayed as “risk groups” with ulterior motives of total subjugation. In the present scenario, the mapping of the vulnerability of those who are subjected to registration, classification and profiling reveals that the dominant narrative in India is fostering an aggressive and intimidating public sphere wherein “existing civil society space is fast shrinking”.

The impropriety in use of vacuous terms like identification and authentication with regard to “risk groups” and individuals lead to decline of an objective sense of truth which has been referred to as “Eclipse of Reason” by Max Horkheimer. He observes that the average person
“will say that reasonable things are things that are obviously useful” through “classification, inference, and deduction...the abstract functioning of the thinking mechanism”. Usefulness is deemed an equivalent of whatever works in favour of his/her self-preservation. Such instrumental reason or subjective reason adversely impacts human consciousness because of an artificial rupture in interrelatedness wherein humanity is manifested in his/her experience of the inseparability of his/her being from other human beings and nature.

Unless the consequent structure that has emerged from the rupture is comprehended with promptness there is a possibility that the people can get eternally subjugated by the asymmetry of information created through information, communication, identification and surveillance technologies. The offences committed by the deployment of new automatic identification technologies to determine, capture and subvert the public sphere and the civil society space, are yet to be categorized as new class of offences in a comprehensive remedial justice framework.


It is significant that the proposed Digital Information Security in Healthcare Act permits use of digital health data for epidemic control only after it has been anonymized or de-identified unlike AarogyaSetu. The former prohibits employers from accessing the health data of workers under any circumstances. AarogyaSetu fails to comply with data protection standards because there is lack of consent, transparency and algorithmic accountability besides lack of data minimization. It is noteworthy that the terms of service for AarogyaSetu exempts the government from any liability arising out of misidentification of an individual’s Covid-19 status and leaves individuals at the mercy of opaque algorithms which perform risk assessment and do not have any remedy in case of false positives.

Instead of addressing the fiscal needs of the health system and the social security system, government seems to be misleading people by promoting applications like AarogyaSetu and UID/Aadhaar. The data collected through AarogyaSetu is being integrated with other databases which can be used for discriminatory purposes. It can adversely impact citizens’ autonomy by subjecting them to permanent surveillance as if it is natural to do so.

In his last State of the Union address in front of Congress, US President, Barack Obama warned the world saying, “we have long memories, and our reach has no limits” even as he talked about the meaning of liberty and imperatives of security. It is the beneficial owners of identification and social control technologies that have made government of USA, the world’s biggest repository of meta data acting as memory. It pays lip-service to the natural human rights. With regard to non-US citizens located outside USA, the US law does not provide protection to “the people” against arbitrary action. In India’s context too, grave issues of civil liberties, privacy and security have been dealt with in a cavalier manner unmindful the fact that new digital technology companies are undermining all the democratic public institutions. India’s leadership seems enamoured of a political order which ends up promoting free flow of citizens’ data that enriches the elites transnationally and widens inequalities. Covid-19 pandemic appears to provide an excuse for India’s social policies to be guided by electronic-biometric and genetic determinism and eugenic thinking of the donors of parties and beneficial owners of unaccountable and admittedly undemocratic economic institutions.

Unless uncritical thinkers and the beneficial owners of economic institutions are made subservient to objective reason, the acts of omission and commission of the pandemic period cannot be undone in the post pandemic era.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, (1973), Hannah Arendt underlined, “Comprehension does not mean denying the outrageous, deducing the unprecedented from precedents, or explaining phenomena by such analogies and generalities that the impact of reality and the shock of experience are no longer felt”. It refers to unpremeditated and attentive facing up to reality as it is and resisting it. An ecosystem has emerged where there is an unprecedented data driven asymmetry of power between ruling parties, their donors and unsuspecting and innocent communities. Its adequate comprehension can be helpful in undoing transgressions of the pandemic period.

The author Gopal Krishna can reached via E-mail: krishnaruhani[at]

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