A Chinese Panopticon

A Chinese Panopticon

In the late 18th Century, Jeremy Bentham, often considered to be the father of utilitarianism1, codified the notion of the panopticon.

The panopticon was at once simple and disturbing. Conceived as a new form of gaol, the panopticon would be a prison where all cells were arranged around a central guard or watchtower. There would be a listening tube in each cell connected to the governor’s watch room, the inhabitants of the cells would never know whether they were being listened in to or not. The purpose of such an arrangement was to encourage people to better themselves by never knowing whether they were being listened to – thereby building up the habit of always behaving lawfully and morally2:

Bentham had argued that the device of the hidden governor would cause prisoners to reform themselves without exposing prison staff and visitors to contact with their noisome, infectious bodies.

It should be noted that law-makers at the time didn’t reject Bentham’s vision due to privacy concerns, but the concern that the chance of remote monitoring was insufficient to cause behavioural improvement in prisoners.

The spectre of the panopticon has haunted society since its inception, and no doubt had Bentham not proposed it, someone else would have. (Bentham himself may have been inspired by others.) While Bentham proposed the panopticon as a means of providing safer, more efficient prisons, the general principle of anonymous, mass surveillance, has become pervasive in fiction, and at times, reality. It was, without a doubt, a muse for George Orwell’s surveillance state3:

The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it, moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live — did live, from habit that became instinct — in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinised.

By the time Orwell wrote 19844, technology had advanced far enough that he could envisage a constantly surveilling state not only listening in, but watching potentially everything its citizens did. He captured so eloquently, in “You had to live … in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinised”, the ultimate goal of Bentham’s panopticon.

Listening at a wall

Had Orwell lived long enough to see the emergence of the Internet, 1984 may have been envisaged differently, and perhaps even more pervasively.

Orwell extended the panopticon beyond the bounds of a gaol system to encompass all of society, and even in this he was not necessarily describing something wholly new. It is widely understood Bentham’s inspiration for the panopticon came from his brother, Samuel, who in Russia built a factory for peasants to work in whilst being efficiently monitored by overseers.

The mass surveillance conducted by the Chinese government of its own citizens is distinctly Orwellian in its approach – one which fosters an electronically enabled thought police and an unconcern for digital privacy. David Vincent5 provides perhaps the best definition for us to use here:

In the sense of the physical invasion of privacy, surveillance comprises five sequential events: the capacity to observe; the act of observation; comprehension of what is seen; intervention on the basis of that knowledge; and a consequent change of behaviour by the subject. Too often the final four have been assumed from the possibility of the first.

Vincent’s final point is potentially contestable: a consequent change of behaviour by the subject – however, consider that the change of behaviour may either internally arise (“I know I am being monitored, hence I will behave differently”), or externally imposed (“You have been observed doing unsanctioned activities, therefore we will take action against you”).

Consider for instance, the government mandated use of spyware on smartphones, as reported in The Register6:

The Chinese government is requiring citizens in Xinjiang province to install spyware on their mobile phones and is enforcing the policy with police spot-checks, according to several online reports.

The article makes it clear the installation is not optional – “Those who do not install the app face up to 10 days in detention, the notice warned.”7. Per Vincent’s criteria, the presence of spyware alone is not sufficient to be flagged as a direct invasion of privacy, though it certainly smacks of the panopticon’s central governor.

In order to be represent an invasion of privacy, such an application must fulfil the remainder of the tenets, viz.:

  • Actual observation taking place
  • Understanding what is being observed
  • Intervening based on the observation
  • The behaviour of the observed changing, or being made to change

Consider then a further statement in the article:

10 Kazakh women in the region were arrested after a group chat discussion about immigrants was picked up by censors.

This simple summary of events encompasses those four remaining tenets:

  • The chat discussion was observed
  • The nature of the discussion was understood
  • Intervention, based on the observed activities took place
  • By being arrested, the actions of the women by necessity were changed

More recently, Tencent, the makers of the social application WeChat (an application ecosystem in itself), have issued an application update whose privacy statement makes it quite clear the content users have within the application is shared with the Chinese government.

As early as 2015, the popularity of WeChat in China was noted8:

Tencent revealed today that its messaging app WeChat now has 549 million monthly active users (MAUs).

As mentioned above, WeChat is more than just a social application. It provides the functionality of multiple applications within the same single application. This is not something limited to just WeChat of course – other applications provide a ‘toolbox’ approach for their users. It’s a simple premise: the more functionality you provide within the same application, the more users will use it and stay within it. (AppBox Pro9 for instance, is an iOS application providing 28 ‘micro’ apps under a single install.)

Having been built around an extensible framework, WeChat supports in-app applications, and instead of providing dozens or even hundreds of these. Per Connie Chan10:

The lightweight apps on WeChat are called “official accounts”. Approved by WeChat after a brief application process, there are well over 10 million of these official accounts on the platform — ranging from celebrities, banks, media outlets, and fashion brands to hospitals, drug stores, car manufacturers, internet startups, personal blogs, and more.

Such is the pervasiveness of WeChat that support for it is seen as essential for any smartphone entering the Chinese market.

By 2017, WeChat‘s monthly average user count has been noted as 889 million11. Fortune12 notes that:

Tencent censors keywords without users ever knowing it; deletes images appearing on WeChat news feeds … and doesn’t subject overseas users to the same onerous censorship as Chinese users.

While Bentham may have thought of limits to the number of people that could be housed in his panopticon, he was, of course constrained in his imagination by 18th century sensibilities and practicalities. Orwell thought differently when he envisaged 1984 – the more advanced and capable the technology, the more pervasive it could be in its reach. With modern data analytics, a state with far reaching powers and less encumbered by bills of rights or democratic constitutions is able to insert itself intimately into the day-to-day digital lives of its citizens. Such analytics allows vast amounts of data to be automatically sifted, and if desired, acted upon automatically – or elevated to human eyes for evaluation when particular triggers are met. While it was previously understood that Chinese citizens employed image steganography1314 to evade automatic detection, the growth in data storage and analytical capabilities is rendering this less reliable, and less safe an option. In the South China Morning Post, we are told15:

The Guobao16 have become more efficient in their jobs by eliminating the need for cooperation from China Mobile or Tencent in many surveillance tasks. What they have now is direct backdoor access to China Mobile and Tencent systems. The Guobao are now able, in real-time, to both eavesdrop on or block your SMSs or WeChat from their technical investigation department offices.

The Chinese panopticon should serve as a warning in more democratic societies of the risks involved in modern surveillance techniques. Such techniques undoubtedly have strong ethical considerations; some countries have an expectation of privacy, others have a guarantee, yet data analytics can quickly render expectations of privacy obsolete. Revisiting briefly those tenets of an invasion of privacy17:

  1. A capacity to observe
  2. Actual observation taking place
  3. Understanding what is being observed
  4. Intervening based on the observation
  5. The behaviour of the observed changing, or being made to change

While David Vincent is correct when he notes of the five tenets of an invasion of privacy, “Too often the final four have been assumed from the possibility of the first”, reports of China’s surveillance methods suggests it is more than capable of exploiting technology to use all five to complete effect.

Such is the importance of privacy that it is seen as an essential human right – per the UN Declaration of Human Rights18:

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.


China is not only a signatory to the UDHR20, but also played an important role in writing it.

While China is undoubtedly unrepresentative of a typical democratic state, the tools available to it are the tools available to any country, if businesses and employees of those businesses are unwilling, or unable to challenge their use.


  1. From earlier articles, recall that utilitarianism is a philosophy of ethics based on the premise of the ‘greatest happiness principle’. I.e., that which brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people is seen as being the most ethical. For further reading, consider Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, History of Utilitarianism
  2. Privacy: A Short History, David Vincent (2016), Polity Books, 978-0-7456-7112-3
  3. 1984, George Orwell, Signet Classics, Published 1961, ISBN 978-0451524935.
  4. First published 8 June 1949
  5. Privacy: A Short History, David Vincent (2016), Polity Books, 978-0-7456-7112-3
  6. China crams spyware on phones in Muslim-majority province, Kieren McCarthy, 24 July 2017, The Register
  7. Ibid
  8. WeChat grows to 549M monthly active users, Steven Millward, 13 May 2015, Tech In Asia
  9. See AppBox Pro in the iTunes Store
  10. When One App Rules Them All: The Case of WeChat and Mobile in China, Connie Chan, 6 August 2015, writing on Andreessen Horowitz’s “Software is eating the world” blog.
  11. China’s WeChat is a Censorship Juggernaut, Scott Cendrowski, April 24, 2017, Fortune Tech
  12. Ibid
  13. Steganography: Hiding Data Within Data, Gary C Kessler, September 2001
  14. Why is the word “salt” flagged by China’s internet censors? Dictionary.com
  15. Hu Jia explains why mobile apps make activism spooky, John Kennedy, 15 November 2012
  16. Part of the Chinese Public Security Bureau
  17. Privacy: A Short History, David Vincent (2016), Polity Books, 978-0-7456-7112-3
  18. United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 12
  19. China’s Excuses for its Human Rights Record Don’t Hold Water, Mark C. Eades, January 17, 2014 for US News
  20. Universal Declaration of Human Rights
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