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The all-seeing Panopticon

The all-seeing Panopticon

A lot of the debate surrounding blockchain thus far has revolved around the potential benefits it can bring to humanity. But what if the base technology was co-opted by regressive governments? 

There have been numerous examples of governments and dictatorships seeking to spy on their own people and their movements, enlisting normal citizens to act as spies and informants on their families, friends and neighbours. Blockchain technology could function as a logical endpoint for this.

Consider a system such as the one being implemented in China, the Social Credit System, which aims to take advantage of big data to create a Citizen Score based on four factors (honesty in government affairs, commercial integrity, societal integrity and judicial credibility). The 2014 document "Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System" stated that the project 'will forge a public opinion environment where keeping trust is glorious'. It will assess what people are purchasing, who their friends are, what websites they visit and their written content on social media and forums. This data is collected through online services ranging from banks to consumer facing shopping portals, from matchmaking to taxi services.

Blockchain seems like a natural fit for this, albeit in a more centralised fashion. Throughout history powerful forces have sought to control much larger groups through fear and co-opting elements of the population. British rule of a 300 million strong Indian population was only possible through taking advantages of the divisions within society and the co-operation of Indian leaders and administrative officials. The KGB pressed millions of ordinary citizens into action as secret informers. The Gestapo relied upon denunciations from ordinary Germans in over 80% of cases they investigated.

Imagine a system which was set up such that everyone citizen had their own identity. You could view your own profile containing all information on you as well as all information against everyone else (with names being anonymous, similar to how Bitcoin addresses function). You would be able to submit information against any other citizen from a centralised database of names. This would begin a transaction onto the blockchain, and the persons profile updated to include the activity that an accusation had been levelled, a piece of information added or a case begun against you.

Users could also be incentivised to inform on other people through either gamification (points for ‘good’ tips) or accruing rewards in a system like the aforementioned Social Credit System.

Michel Foucault wrote in Discipline and Punish of the Panopticon, noting that "he who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection" and argued that the efficiency of the institution is maximised by placing subjects in a state of constant visibility. He also argued that it facilitates the function of power – even if there is no-one there enforcing it.

He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power... he becomes the principle of his own subjection
— Michel Foucault

This system would be the all-seeing nightmarish Foucault envisages. All would be trapped within its confines, registered from birth, subject to the paranoia each transaction would commit. 

An extension of this would be to link in with wearable technology to facilitate a permanent monitoring of a users whereabouts, adding their location every 15-30 minutes as a transaction on their profile (which would also show if illegal groups were meeting in secret) or referencing against a set of co-ordinates of where a user is allowed to be (which could be used to keep undesirable elements out of certain areas). Step outside the area - your profile flags up a caution. 

The endeavours described above could of course function without blockchain, but the technology would make it easier, more efficient and induce the fear of not knowing what information was about to be added to your profile. These ideas may never make it past the pages of a bad sci-fi novel, but history has repeatedly proven that new technology is utilised to further the appetite of oppressive rulers – there is no reason for blockchain to prove any different.

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