The digital panopticon is already deeply embedded in our society. A close look at what has been happening in the telecommunications industry reveals the extent to which our global hegemonic intelligence community is embedded in networks everywhere. We live in a digital looking glass, a narus box, a telecommunicative panopticon. Jeremy Bentham wrote of the panopticonic prison system in the 19th Century, and we are fulfilling the aims of a kind of prison-society today, one that is visible from everywhere, especially by our own governments.

In 2006, the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) filed a class action suit against AT&T and its holding companies which have been collaborating with the National Security Agency (NSA) in a massive and warrantless surveillance program that illegally tracks the domestic and foreign communications and communication records of millions of Americans. The AT&T office on Folsom Street in San Fransisco is the location which had moved this case forward, the specific point of dispute in Hepting v AT&T. Yet overall EFF estimates that the NSA intercepts and data-mines at least 10% of all internet traffic in the United States. EFF found that there were 477 such locations, like the one in San Fransisco, in 2006 alone.

AT&T is not the only internet service provider in the telecom industry that collaborates with the NSA. MCI and Sprint, who control most of the international telecommunications, have also been implicated. And the spread of the apparatus is aided by recent mergers: AT&T was recently acquired by SBC Communications, which has since adopted the AT&T name as its corporate moniker. MCI, formerly known as WorldCom, was recently acquired by Verizon. Sprint recently merged with Nextel. The tentacles of the NSA digital spy apparatus would seemingly have a nearly unlimited influence over the telecom industry, given the collaboration, and the rate of acquisition. Hepting v AT&T is still unresolved.

Several legislations have made this massive apparatus possible. The longstanding Title 18 of the US Code provides the panopticonic backbone. The Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, enacted in 1994, paved the way for an expansion of massive surveillance, and amended title 18 to this end. The next obvious piece in this game is the USA Patriot Act, which magnified its exuberance throughout the code, amending things like the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, granting electronic surveillance without the obtainment of court orders. This in turn changes the entire context and practice of the 1st and 4th amendments to the Constitution. There are no limitations to illegal search and seizure in the digital domain–the court calls this post-Patriot expansion of executive powers “legal interception”. President Bush says the looking glass society protects the country. Yet it is clear the programs are part of a domestic spying apparatus, slowly built up during the Cold War years, and now being turned on its own people.

The diagram on the left is a detailed plan of how the NSA splits and intercepts all the data at the AT&T Folsom Street facility. Each packet is sniffed and its content examined through massive computing capabilities through technologies like the Narus box. This high-end security equipment is provided by Narus carrier-class security systems, profiting from the US War on Terror. The term “narus” is in fact Latin for “to know”, and this is exactly what all these legislations allow the federal government and its epistemic communities to do–increase search-ability, increase visibility, magnify projectability, and ultimately control and silence behavior.

The average person doesn’t have a concept of the massive data-mining capabilities of the federal government. Data-mining is the systematic search and discovery of specific information through general access to all information. In order to data-mine DARPA and the NSA need general access to all information. This is what Narus technologies provides.

Another feature of data-mining is that there is no individualized suspicion upon analysis. The NSA and DARPA mine data without discretion. Everyone is a suspect, all payloads are suspicious upon going into the mine. As I have outlined in an earlier blog, there is a legal precedent in our country that says general searches and general warrants are unjust, as was part of the reason for the American Revolution. A digital panopticon is perhaps the most extreme kinds of scenario that John Wilkes Booth envisioned. If our revolutionaries were concerned with whole neighborhoods being searched, their “papers” confiscated, think of how invasive it would have seemed to them to have all private networks subject to illegal search and seizure.

The exuberation of these institutions is not benign. Our technology is not wholly benign. For decades it has been developed for governmental purposes–if it were only for social networking we perhaps would have nothing to fear. The government has the ability to prosecute and silence. Social communities do not. I’m putting a plug in for counter-institutions like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, since it is important in our age that we are aware of and contributing to counter epistemic communities who help keep our knowledge free and our networked societies free.