Mobile Apps and the Resistible Rise of a New Disciplinary Panopticon

The rise of mobile applications has made our lives easier in unprecedented ways. From navigating a strange city to coordinating group plans to finding a nearby restaurant, the refrain echoes; “there’s an app for that.” The mobile market is estimated at well over a trillion dollars and counting, expected to reach 300 exabytes over the next five years. It seems like now every company is scrambling to make sure that they have a horse in the race. However, as companies frantically search for new ways to make our lives easier, they may encounter disturbing ethical questions about how to approach apps that may radically alter our society.

Take Securafone, one of the top apps that appeared in the Battle of the Apps at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Showcase. It advertises the ability to track the movements and locations of loved ones, to disable texting when the phone is moving at car-speeds and to connect users instantly with emergency services, including police. The website shows pictures of teenage girls screaming in shock, overlaid with statistics such as “11 teenagers die in the United States each day while texting and driving.”

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting your kids to be safe. For years parents have been battling one technological boogeyman after another, from violent video games to duplicitous chatroom predators to texting-while-driving. Finally, it seems like technology is on the parents side. This was a recurrent theme running through presentations at Battle of the Apps, where the figure of the wayward teenage daughter, good-hearted but dangerously naive, was repeatedly invoked. This teenage daughter is a parental nightmare; she succumbs to peer pressure from her daredevil friends, she has feelings for that dirtbag guitar player that lives on the wrong side of town, she drives too fast with a car full of distracting friends, and then she starts texting. In short, she’s a recipe for disaster.

There are now several apps that use data from smartphones’ GPS and accelerometer to limit functionality, including InstaMapper, 3dtracking  and Mologogo. The reaction to these apps has been widely positive, and more apps are slated to integrate GPS data into their functionality. What gets glossed in these technical discussions is that many of these apps essentially turn your phone into a tracking device, the virtual equivalent of a police bracelet currently used to enforce house arrests. Essentially, by giving parents easy access to the ability to track the location of their children, such apps increase the expectation that parents will act to rigidly police their child’s behavior.

It doesn’t stop with parents. Like most things in the tech world today, ubiquitous GPS data is quickly becoming “social”. Of course, a lot of people want their friends to know where they are and what they’re doing at all times; they post it, tweet it, and check-in through FourSquare. But it may not be long before where we live in a world where our smartphone’s will give us the digital equivalent of Harry Potter’s Marauder’s Map, where we can examine our environs at any geographical scale to see the exact real-time GPS locations of our friends and family. To be sure, used wisely this technology has the potential to do a lot of good, probably even to save lives. But if information is power, then access to it is only as good as the intentions of the user. Which raises the question; who don’t you want knowing where you are at all times?

The truth is that your opinions about exercise of powers by police, parents and friends probably depend a lot on your life experience and your social location. If you come from a community that has experienced more than its share of police harassment, the idea that your exact location could be immediately accessible to any officer at any time isn’t exactly comforting. Consider the scenario in which police are told to keep their eyes out for a robbery suspect who is a black male, mid-twenties, 6’2-5 and suddenly two officers see a “D’Shaun” and “Jamal” dot pop up on their trackers. The police head around the block, bang on the door and demand entry, yell “where are they?” until the woman at the door pointed down by the television to reveal two kids home from school playing phone games on the floor. The officers apologize sheepishly, and the woman tells them that it isn’t the first time and it wouldn’t be the last time. Damn GPS, she says.

There are certainly forces in motion to put the brakes on this sort of invasive scanning. The Supreme Court recently made headlines by ruling that police require a warrant to attach a GPS device to a suspect’s car. However, critics have argued that this won’t prevent actionable surveillance from GPS continuing, as many people consent to sell or publicize their location data as part of dense (and usually unread) privacy agreements that come with the app download. Indeed, precisely this tactic was used to track down the identities of Wikileakers in a federal investigation. Companies may even sell this data to police for a tidy profit, as TomTom did to Dutch police to determine the ideal placement for speed traps. You may not even be aware of the type of data you’re constantly creating, sending out your mobile stream of preferences and habits like a beacon for whoever’s watching.

What about parents? Do they always know best? The texting-while-driving thing seems like a no-brainer, but what about the other exploits of the wayward teenage daughter? If enforcing obedience is the goal of these apps, then the question is all about how comfortable you are with empowering parental authority. Dictums like “Don’t go on Twitter while you’re on the interstate” and “Don’t drive the family car way over the speed limit” seem pretty uncontroversial, while mandates like “You aren’t allowed to go over to that family’s house” or more to the point, “I don’t want you spending time with that kind of boy” are murkier. How much control should parents have over their teenager’s whereabouts and associations? Is the mobile app destined to become the new vehicle by which anxious father’s regulate their daughters’ sexuality?

Then there are spouses. What better way to keep tabs on monogamous fidelity then constant surveillance? Marriage has always to some extent been a relationship of mutual policing. But relationships can also turn ugly. What if that ex keeps popping up at the same grocery store as you, giving you that nervous smile? The implications are even darker for abusive relationships, the particularly involving domestic violence where one partner may try to literally flee and take great pains to conceal their location. Tech-savvy sociopaths can then use GPS location data to re-start the next cycle of terror. Then again, this same power can also be used to alert abuse victims that their attacker might be near.

Friends are another matter entirely. It might be helpful to be able to see that your friend is actually waiting for you at the other Potbelly’s, or that you accidentally came to the library’s side entrance instead of the front door. But I don’t want people to be able to see that I’m dawdling, or lingering. That sometimes I actually sit at home and do absolutely nothing. I know it might sound strange, but real-time  GPS location becomes just another visible quality, a face. This face becomes something that we consciously examine in our own mirrors, and that we use to conjure up new anxieties, fears that drive ever-more cautious formations of our own inter-personal identities.

The French philosopher Michel Foucault once described the effect of the panopticon, an “ideal prison” in which a single guard tower looks into a circular coliseum of cells, but no prisoner can see whether or not a guard is even present. Thus, the prisoners can never know if and when they’re being watched, and so they begin to act as if they are under constant surveillance. Foucault described this behavior as self-policing, and suggested that disciplinary institutions such as schools, hospitals and asylums functioned in the same way; to create productive citizens who learn to police their own behavior. For Foucault, the danger of such automatic conformity is that when groups of people are marked as deviant, they begin to enforce the punishment and shame of that deviance on themselves. Writing as an openly gay man in an era when homosexuality was still classified as a mental illness, Foucault saw firsthand the way that disciplinary norms can make each one of us our own worst jail-keeper.

The principle here is simple; the less we are surveilled, the more freely we act, for better or for worse. But the person watching the camera isn’t always who we think. Any virtual system of this scale and complexity is vulnerable to exploitation, to hacking, to cooption. Imagine a stalker armed with the real-time GPS location of his stalkee and all her friends. Imagine a terrorist whose phone sent him an alert when the US Joint Chiefs converge on the same restaurant for a lunch meeting, or even automatically detonated an explosive on its own. Imagine the real-time location of your wayward teenage daughter for sale to the highest bidder, anonymously transferable to anyone on a bit-coin exchange.

The point here is not that this technology is bad or good, but that it is powerful, and that it is dangerous. There are those who are beginning to draw lines, like Mozilla’s Do Not Track list for those of us creeped out by behavioral advertising, and apps that spoof GPS location data, giving people a protective mask for their new-found geo-spatial mirrors. For mobile developers and users, it is important to know the risks, to critically evaluate the ethical questions and to draw lines between what is technically feasible and socially desirable. It’s a brave new world, and that’s the best we can do.

*The original title of this article used the word “synopticon” in place of “panopticon” to refer to a situation in which an individual is subject to possible surveillance by many isolated observers, rather than the panopticon in which a sole potential observer can surveil many subjects. The phrase was introduced to describe the situation created by many new media technologies and formats, including reality television, and it appropriately describes the situations of many social networks and mobile apps.