Entry Nr 3: The Internet of Things as a Metaphor For Panopticon, Why or Why Not? Contest: Dan Calloway

By Dan Calloway, 2 January 2012

At the very heart of the controversy with the association of the Internet of Things with the 18th Century British Philosopher, Jeremy Bentham (Lyon, 1994), and his concept of the Panopticon as the central controlling mechanism over what was a failing prison system of the time, and the perception—real or imaginary—on the part of modern society and the corporate world that the ubiquitous, sentient, and pervasive technology of smart tagging, which empowers inanimate objects with computing power that connects these objects to humans and to each other via the RFID network, is the idea that this technology will be used unethically or illegally as a means of government surveillance and data gathering in order to control the populace both from a political and governmental standpoint as well as from a capitalistic consumerism perspective. Indeed, the Panopticon provides a compelling metaphor for understanding the concept of electronic surveillance that is of paramount concern by the world-citizenry. Furthermore, this association is further compounded by the writings of George Orwell in his famous novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, which was a dystopia or anti-Utopia that was a literary depiction of the future state of society as being undesirable and unavoidable wherein the “all-seeing” eye of Big Brother watched over and controlled every facet of society as a means of controlling it and its constituents (Lyon). Recent events, such as 9/11, and the development of Homeland Security to combat worldwide terrorism, which oversees such organizations as the National Security Agency (NSA), Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the United States, has spawned increased electronic surveillance, wire-tapping, email and other telecommunications scrutiny, as well as enhancements to Carnivore—the ultimate secret spy-machine that gathers all forms of electronic telecommunications and visual satellite imagery for anti-terrorism purposes—it is not surprising that society, as a whole, would be alarmed about smart-tagging and sharing of private information, and the negative implications that this technology might bring to people and to world governments.


What I am proposing is that the Internet of Things should not be associated with the panoptic metaphor but, rather, through the diligent efforts of Council and the use of IT education, society can be better informed to understand the benefits that RFID smart-tagging brings to society and to the corporate world, which far outweigh any privacy and legal concerns that they might envision. These benefits are seen in the pharmaceutical industry, automobile industry, medical field, home improvement, healthcare industry, clothing manufacturing, supply chain, the military, law enforcement, utilities, and the transportation industry, just to name a few (Calloway, 2010). As I see it, the obstacles that confront RFID microchip technology and the implementation of that technology for the betterment of mankind fall into three distinct categories: privacy, security, and standardization (Shepard, 2004). We have discussed the first of these obstacles. The second is the misconception that RFID microchip technology cannot be made secure. This is an absolute falsehood. What is missing from the equation is the understanding that RFID communication between the RFID smart tag and reader can be made secure using existing cryptographic technology across multiple layers that are available today. In fact, security already exists at the chip level through the inherent degree of security that silicon-based chips offer. Secure SSL/TLS cryptographic algorithms offer still another layer of security to protect the RF transmission between tag and reader. Many of the technologies that exist today offer sophisticated challenge handshake response mechanisms that thwart man-in-the-middle attacks by requiring authentication each time the tag transmits data to the reader. And, lastly, the final obstacle is the lack of standardization that currently exists in the worldwide development of smart tags, smart tag readers, and the software that allows the process to work. A Ngai, et al. (2008) study revealed that among the articles written on RFID security, privacy, and policy issues, only two related to standardization. The European Union's information society and media commissioner, Vivian Reding, in March, 2007 stated that the technology is already splintering, and it is vitally important that policies between the United States and the European Union—leading countries in RFID technology—and other countries who will be involved in developing and implementing RFID technology going forward need to be aligned and compatible. Taking the lead on developing standards for the use of RFID smart-tagging technologies is the International Organization of Standardization (ISO), which has been developing standards for the air-interface protocol (communications protocol for smart tags and smart readers) and for testing the conformance and performance of RFID smart tags and readers.


Until a concerted effort to educate society and the corporate world regarding the many benefits that RFID smart-tagging and this technology will bring to them that outweigh any concerns that they might have regarding the uncontrolled use of the technology, society and the corporate world will not embrace the technology as a result of their ignorance regarding its capabilities. The “number one” priority of the IoTC moving forward should be in the development of positive information regarding smart-tagging rather than allowing the proliferation by others who don't support the “Internet of Things” paradigm of negative propaganda regarding this technology.




Calloway, D. (2010). RFID Microchip Technology and the Internet of Things. Capella University. Retrieved from http://www.dancalloway.com/assets/Documents/RFID_and_the_Internet_of_Things.pdf

Lyon, D. (1994). From big brother to electronic panopticon. The Electronic Eye: The Rise of Surveillance Society (pp. 57-80). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

E.W.T. Ngai, Karen K. L. Moon, Fredrick J. Riggins, & Candace Y. Yi. (2008). ScienceDirect College Edition - International Journal of Production Economics : RFID research: An academic literature review (1995–2005) and future research directions. International Journal of Production Economics, RFID: Technology, Applications, and Impact on Business Operations, 112(2), 510-520. doi:10.1016/j.ijpe.2007.05.004 

Shepard, S. (2004). RFID: The Promise of a Strategic Technology. SCG, LLC. Retrieved from http://www.shepardcomm.com/



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