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A Farewell To Welfare?

French Philosopher Michel Foucault revitalised interest in Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon in his publication ‘Discipline and Punish’ in the 1970’s. He used Bentham’s concept of Panopticon as a way to illustrate the proclivity of disciplinary societies subjugate its citizens. According to Foucault, the prisoner of a Panopticon is at the receiving end of asymmetrical surveillance. “He is seen, but he does not see; he is an object of information, never a subject in communication,” explained the French philosopher. As a result, the inmate polices himself for fear of punishment! Later, Jake Goldenfein – a Researcher at the Centre for Media and Communications Law, University of Melbourne – said that it would be important to remember the corrective purposes of Bentham’s Panopticon when considering it as a metaphor for modern surveillance. “The relevance of the Panopticon as a metaphor begins to wither when we start thinking about whether contemporary types of visuality (effectively digital and data-driven) are analogous to the Central Tower concept. For example, whether this type of visuality is as asymmetrical, and – I think more importantly – being co-opted for the same political exercise. Does the fact that we don’t know we’re being watched mean we are being normalised in the way the Panopticon was intended to correct behaviour?” he asked.

Michel Foucault

Foucault’s analysis is still quite relevant as the all-pervading States constantly monitor the citizens in the contemporary world. Although the States claim that they are doing so in order to protect the people, their main intention is to control the activities of the citizens. Just like the Authoritarian States (like erstwhile Soviet Union or Nazi Germany), modern Liberal Democratic States also try to control the behaviours of their citizens. The modern States, which project themselves as the vanguard of Personal Liberty and Freedom of Speech, do the surveillance job in a more subtle way.

The Coronavirus pandemic has created a new opportunity for the States to bolster this surveillance work. Almost all the States have declared a war against the COVID -19, and have taken the surveillance job to a new level with the help of modern technology. As the situation is unprecedented, the States proceed to take full advantage of the situation to control their citizens, apart from implementing some public health regulations necessary to prevent the disease. Efforts are being made to bring everyone under the purview of seemingly innocent and necessary digital technology, so as to increase the Power of the State, and the Ruler through greater surveillance and control.

Benjamin Netanyahu

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel recently allowed his country’s security services to use a digital technology or App for locating Corona patients that is commonly used to track militants. And when a Parliamentary Committee opposed the move, the PM issued an emergency decree in order to enforce his Government’s decision. He even suspended the Parliament, and denied the Judiciary to play its role. In a way, Netanyahu is trying to reshape his political career by using the Pandemic as a shield.

India, too, has taken a similar step. The Government of India recently launched ‘Aarogya Setu’, an Indian open-source COVID -19 “Contact tracing, Syndromic mapping and Self-assessment” digital service, primarily a mobile App, developed by the National Informatics Centre under the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology. The Narendra Modi Administration in New Delhi is of the opinion that the App is aimed at augmenting the initiatives of the Government, particularly the Department of Health, in proactively reaching out to and informing the users of the app regarding risks, best practices and relevant advisories, pertaining to the containment of COVID-19. To make this app work, at least 50% of people in a particular region have to install it in their mobile phones. Most importantly, the users need to have Bluetooth and GPS turned on in their phones, always. The Government has assured people that the users’ data will be shared only with the State. The fact of the matter is that the Government has the right to give some of the information, obtained through this App, to various organisations. The organisations can use those information only once, and store them for up to 180 days. And, the danger lies here!

Aarogya Setu

In its 2018-19 report, the Economic Survey of India mentioned that it would be important to link citizens’ personal information to the concept of public good. The report further stated that some of the information could be shared with private companies in exchange for money. The reason is simple: to reduce the burden of government spending.

Some experts opine that the time has come to choose between the two: the privacy of the citizen and the health security. Interestingly, the States are not at all interested in balancing between the two. In that case, it would be difficult for the Government to ensure omnipotent State surveillance. Modern men live in a Panoptic society, where there is hardly the concept of personal or freedom! French Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau had rightly said: “Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains.

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