cartome.org

21 August 2001


Invited Talk, 16 August 2001
10th USENIX Security Symposium
, Washington, DC.

Thanks to USENIX and Greg Rose, Invited Talks Coordinator

Reversing the Panopticon

Deborah Natsios, Cartome.org
John Young, Cryptome.org


Deborah Natsios:

Visiting a town as stocked with symbolic monuments as Washington DC is a reminder of very real and provocative linkages between persuasive political systems and the civil space and edifices they generate. Architects are taught to "read" landscape code, and this is a town of emblematic war memorials and presidential temples loaded up with tantalizing national narratives based on fact, myth and propaganda -- all of which are inextricably intertwined with theories of power and ideas about 'security', including national security, which are the concern of advanced computing systems specialists and this USENIX symposium.

As readers of Cryptome and Cartome may be aware, John Young and I are not systems architects, but practitioners of architecture of the steel, glass, bricks and mortar kind -- and so, as 'legacy' architects we tend to project the implications of new technologies and their constitutive politics beyond machine and source code, games and simulations -- onto the so-called real spaces they enable: the social space of the street, the city, the national boundary, global space.

Washington DC as a weaver of allegory and myth also reminds us of the ancient link between bricks-and-mortar architecture and the first lines of security and defense. The classical language that drapes many of DC's federal edifices embraces a mythologic history which credits Daedelus as being the first architect. This attribution is especially intriguing because Daedelus was the guy who designed Crete's pernicious Labyrinth, an early structure of defense and punishment configured, interestingly, as an algorithm of 3D encryption. The Labyrinth was policed by that infamous bully-of a-bull enforcer, the Minotaur. I like to think of the Minotaur as an early bovine ancestor of the MPAA, RIAA and BXA.

Recently, I've become somewhat less impressed by Daedelus’ feat of labyrinthine enciphered design, than the insurgent work of someone we may come to respect as a largely unheralded first reverse-engineer -- Ariadne. Ariadne did something as brilliant as it was subversive: she provided the ball of fragile silk thread which allowed the captive Theseus to exploit and defeat both labyrinth and Minotaur. Ariadne's subtle thread constructed an ethereal reverse pathway back out of the convoluted maze, allowing Theseus to escape to safety.

It appears that reverse-engineering continues to enjoy the ancient taboo status it established early on in Minoan culture, as USENIX attendees who heard the Felten team's paper on the SDMI Challenge last night are only too aware. It’s work that's being stripped of its fair-use designation, and being increasingly demonized, even criminalized by our latter-day Minotaurs.

"‘Reversing the Panopticon" is the motif of John Young's and my remarks today. They allude to Cryptome and, more recently Cryptome's companion site, Cartome's, modest ongoing project of reverse-engineering, metaphoric in our case, perhaps, and perhaps as vulnerable as silk thread, too -- transacted under the assumption that information is power, involving efforts to reverse-engineer labyrinthine information architectures: encouraging a reversal of restricted one-way information flows, a reversal of one-way transparency, a reversal of the one-way power relation captured through the insidious one-way mirror.

I guess our work also falls within architectural design parameters framed by that notable institution, the library, and its open-source, First Amendment sanctuary. In our case it's the construction of an archive of salient documents relating to technologies with unambiguous -- as well as ambiguous -- political repercussions, especially those that impact civil liberties -- and in Cartome's case, technologies that impact the space and landscapes in which civil liberties are deployed or suppressed, as the case may be.

Since the end of August signals our perennial duty to humor friends and family determined to share summer travel adventures, I hope you'll forgive my imposing a not so dissimilar travelogue today, albeit one where summer peripateticism has been charted as much by Cryptome and Cartome’s interests as the ubiquitous Baedeker or Lonely Planet travel guides. The inquisitive global tourist may find something to track in Cartome’s small but growing collection of spatial / geographic documents that focus on the claims and/or deceptions proffered by state-sponsored imaging systems, particularly those produced in the context of the national security state -- geographically informative systems such as government cartography, photography, photogrammetry, steganography, camouflage, maps, images, drawings, charts, diagrams.

In the spirit of such tourism, we found ourselves a few short weeks ago tracking what was once a highly politicized historic space, a Tuscan stretch of what had been a key medieval power infrastructure, the Via Francigena -- the Frank's Road or Road to France -- the leading trade and pilgrimage route that linked the capitals of Europe with Rome, a route that, in its day, continued on to sacred Jerusalem.

Hooking up with the Via Francigena happened to bring the idea of the encrypted labyrinth back into view once again. It turns out that labyrinths were etched on the floors of medieval cathedrals as compacted representations of the pilgrimage to the Holy Land, anagrammatic emblems of the ineffable mysteries of the penitent’s extended itinerary. If you couldn't book a spot on the latest crusade to the Levant, spiritual benefits awaited those willing to walk-the-walk in the privacy of their own home cathedrals.

But we weren't dealing with pilgrimage codes out there under the hot summer sun -- no scaled down, compressed, enciphered mapping of a mystical itinerary -- but the Via Francigena itself, at a robustly full-scale of 1:1, as it unfolded in real time and space through the central Tuscan province of Siena, surrounded by fragmented relics of its medieval security apparatus.

At one significant node, our trajectory intersected San Gimignano, the photogenic hill-town whose wealth had derived from its strategic siting along the heavily trafficked network. Those of you who have visited San Gimignano will agree that despite its glut of tourists, it's a place of architectural interest that more than does justice to its designation by UNESCO as a World Architectural Heritage Site. “San Gimignano delle belle Torri” or “San Gimignano of the beautiful towers” is famous for the impressive stone shafts, some rising almost 50m in height, that still dominate its skyline. 14 of the original 72 structures remain.

The dueling multiplicity of the fortified towers is a clue of the free commune form of government that represented an emerging burgher class grown wealthy in trade, banking and commodities, which had superseded feudal political models in the late 12th century. The multiplicity of towers was an emblem of the newly decentralized, distributed network of commercial interests. The towers broadcast the competitive streak of prominent local families, signifying their owners’ status in the political and commercial calculus allied with nearby Florence’s Guelph and Ghibelline factions.

 

In their day, San Gimignano’s 72 towers had multiple roles in service of the free commune, including surveillance and security. They were strategic optical devices serving their owners’ geospatial agenda, loci of observation that overlooked the built town and strategic panoramas of the Tuscan countryside beyond. Among key targets of inspection and intelligence-gathering: ongoing reconnoitering of the dynamic flows of goods and humanity that coursed along the crucial Via Francigena, thronged with medieval agents on the move: merchants, prelates, soldiers, and pilgrims. When conflicts erupted over control of the Via Francigena’s valuable commodity flows -- including the saffron, wine and olive oil for which the hill-town was reknown -- the towers became integral to the military apparatus, functioning as launching platforms from which offensive and defensive actions could be deployed.

But in the context of another kind of architecture, the kind of information technology and architecture being tracked by projects like Cryptome.org, Cartome.org, and this USENIX Symposium, San Gimignano is even more intriguing because of historical factors that unexpectedly place it along a timeline that charts the emergence of a more modern kind of politicized space and landscape than either the feudal domain or free commune. I’m referring to the technologies, spaces and landscapes that underpin what we affectionately refer to as our own contemporary surveillance state.

Though San Gimignano's towers were part of the security apparatus of intelligent observation and defense within the free commune environment, their spatial, social and political function can be distinguished from later architectures and technologies of surveillance and social control that would eventually render obsolete the towers’ massive masonry engineering.

The town’s links to precursors of modern theories of security and surveillance are both tragic and ironic, obliging us to go beyond the era of San Gimignano’s communal wealth and dominance. Instead, we linger on the portentous year 1348, because in 1348, developments in culture, politics and commerce came to a devastating, horrifying standstill, leaving the hill-town’s 72 towers shrouded in cataclysmic death.

The usual medieval scourges of fire, war, earthquake and damnation were not to blame. Instead, San Gimignano had been visited by an exotic agent that had made its way along the Via Francigena swiftly and with a vengeance. It was a tiny, unprepossessing creature, Xenopsylla cheopsis, the Oriental rat flea, bearing neither rich saffron nor opulent silk goods, but the bacterium Yersina pestis, which proceeded to decimate the city’s population, reducing it by ¾, a ruthless epidemiological catastrophe that probably originated in a distant trade partner, China. Notwithstanding the impressive security apparatus afforded by looming towers that had successfully policed the pilgrimage and trade route, The Black Plague proved to be a non-negotiable adversary. San Gimignano -- like other powerful Tuscan cities, including nearby Siena -- would never really recover from its effects.

In a seminal and controversial work of the late 1970’s “Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison”, the late French philosopher Michel Foucault tracks the origins of modern institutions of discipline and social control, like the prison, and in a much-debated chapter titled “Panopticism” Foucault points out that by the late 17th century, efforts to combat recurring outbreaks of the Plague --such as had savaged San Gimignano and Europe in years following 1348 -- would eventually lead to urban protocols and management technologies that unexpectedly provided a structural and administrative prototype associated with the modern surveillance state. Ironically, epidemiological controls would provide the blueprint of what Foucault called: "the utopia of the perfectly governed city".
  Let me summarize Foucault’s fascinating description of disciplinary mechanisms applied to towns under threat of Plague pandemic -- quarantines that, it turns out, would eventually follow very precise urbanistic, administrative and bureaucratic designs:

Documents of the era describe quarantined towns being divided into distinct quarters, each quarter governed by a so-called intendant, each infected street placed under the authority of a syndic, who would keep it under constant surveillance. Each house would be locked from the outside by the syndic, who then submitted house-keys to the intendant of the quarter. Keys would be returned to owners only after the quarantine was lifted. Only intendants, syndics and guards were permitted to move about the streets and between infected houses, or from one corpse to another. All inhabitants were obliged to appear at their windows daily to be individually inspected and scrutinized in regard to their state of health. Each individual’s status was documented by written registration submitted by syndics to intendants, and then remitted to the central authority, the magistrate.

Thus, Foucault describes how under threat of pandemic Death, we find disciplinary machinery in which "social space is observed at every point... the slightest movement of individuals is supervised and recorded...written documentation links the omnipresent and omniscient hierarchic center with the quarantined periphery". To paraphrase Foucault: during quarantines, the late 17th century inhabitant became "immobilized in a frozen kind of space... an environment in which inspection functioned ceaselessly... and the authoritarian gaze was alert everywhere". This, says Foucault, was the “political dream of the plague”. This was “the utopia of the perfectly governed city”.

The reconnaissance capabilities of massive masonry observation towers, with their intelligence-gathering and defensive overview of strategic landscape and crucial traffic, had been supplanted by a more lightweight, mobile structure: a technology of administrative compartmentalization, classification and policing, underpinned by technologies of authoritarian inspection, data collection and databanking.

As some of you are aware, Foucault’s description of late 17th century quarantine protocols is a mere prologue to his more trenchant analysis: how a provocative model prison would be theorized and codified a century later, that effectively built on Plague quarantine protocols. The innovations of the infamous Panopticon cited in our talk's title signaled a modern shift away from massively fortified security architecture and the punishing brutality of dark dungeons. The Panopticon provided novel machinery for social discipline through an ingenious design based on illumination, transparency and vision.

The Panopticon project was theorized in the mid-1780s by a British social reformer trained in law, Jeremy Bentham, the founder of the doctrine of Utilitarianism, who enlisted Enlightenment reason to draw up a utopian scheme for social reform -- one he saw as equally applicable to the penitentiary house, mad-house, house of industry, or school.
Bentham’s Panopticon -- the Greek neologism signified ‘all-seeing place’-- was all about vision and transparency, but vision and transparency operating one-way only: in the service of power. Bentham specifications called for a concentric building whose periphery was divided into non-communicating cellular enclosures, in which confined inmates would be held in isolation, invisible to each other. At the center of the annular design was a tower, the lodge, which housed the omniscient inspector. The panoptic mechanism’s asymmetric system of lighting and wooden blinds ensured that the individual inmate was constantly visible, identifiable, and classifiable to the inspector -- who was a kind of secular version of the allseeing god's-eye.

But while the inmate is seen by the inspector, he himself cannot see. “He is the object of information, never a subject in communication” Foucault points out. The Panopticon’s power was "visible and unverifiable” -- that is, the inmate could not see the inspector, only the looming tower: he would never know when he was actually under surveillance. This uncertainty, along with the inmate’s isolation and loss of privacy, is the means of his compliance and subordination. Uncertainty becomes the principle of his own subjection. It assures that, in Foucault words: “surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if discontinuous in its action”. And thus Foucault draws our attention to our own very modern condition, locked within: “a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power”.

In retrospect, Bentham’s social reform is recognized for its modern characteristics, achieved through an unprecedented kind of social control, an institutional architecture that provided for an efficient technology of coercive and punitive surveillance. It was a clean, rational, instrumental architecture whose internal mechanisms constructed physical preconditions of asymmetric power relations. Foucault refers to the Panopticon as a “pure figure of political technology”. And so it remains.

Ever-more subtle and sophisticated Panoptic mechanisms continue to reduce the individual's privacy and integrity. Panopticism continues to limit the space in which civil liberties can be freely deployed. In the face of manipulative technologies, inventive reverse-engineering strategies are necessarily distributed, multiple, simultaneous, hybrid, interdisciplinary, opportunistic. We recall the dazzling efficacy of Ariadne's fragile silk thread in the face of the Minotaur's brutality. Last night, panelists reviewing the challenges to civil liberties wrought by SDMI and DMCA underscored the need for resistance through collaborations that reach across disciplinary boundaries and specializations. Institutional and disciplinary isolation -- and preaching to the choir -- constitute a prison of their own. Unexpected collaborations can offer productive strategies, and it is hoped that Cryptome and Cartome libraries offer useful tools towards the conceptualization of such novel strategies.

This multi-layered, hybrid approach has characterized Cartome's recent analysis of the Jim Bell case, which explores unexamined terrain surrounding the case, including Homeland Defense, the new national security policy which is ushering in a troubling and unprecedented era of militarization of the domestic, civilian landscape: “So say goodnight to Joshua...Homeland Defense and the Prosecution of Jim Bell". Be forewarned, if you are a rabblerousing C-punk, your home address has recently been programmed into precision targeting GIS.

At the far terminus of the medieval Via Francigena's pilgrimage route, “Jerusalem SKY” (scheduled for online publication, Fall 2001) investigates conflict resolution through dual-use technologies -- reconciling hardware and software developed in the context of national security with bird migrations that make the skies of the region one of the world's premier long-distance migratory flyways, linking Europe, Asia, and Africa -- with important implications for the military doctrine of "total air supremacy".

Intriguing conflict resolution strategies have been forced by the reality of avian biogeography and the effects of catastrophic birdstrikes, in which an F-15 worth $45million, along with pilot and navigator, can be brought down like a stone by a migrant stork. Around 170 military aircraft in Europe and Middle East have been destroyed in such birdstrike collisions.

“Jerusalem SKY” continues research initiated with "Parallel Atlas", a digital cartographic project that explores the Cold War's last remaining monument and world's most fortified corridor, the Korean Demilitarized Zone, whose role as a national security landscape has been redefined since the Korean War by its transformation into a unique ecosystem harboring some of Northeast Asia's most endangered species of endemic and migratory fauna and flora.

Cartome's interest in hybridity, in the multiple and simultaneous layering of inclusive datasets -- including the cartographic superimposition of biogeographic data onto national security landscapes -- is reminiscent of the lesson of San Gimignano, whose security firewall of massive masonry towers did little to address a microscopic biological agent.

As always, Cartome, like Cryptome, looks forward to supporting our readers, and is pleased to provide a forum for your submissions -- whether papers, maps, charts or hyperlinks.

And now let me turn you over to John Young, who will take us through another portal.