An article published in today’s edition of the French newspaper Le Monde claims that the Direction générale de la sécurité extérieure, France’s foreign, intelligence service, are collecting and storing all metada generated by modern communication services (telephone calls, text messages, emails, Internet usage, faxes, etc) and that other French intelligence/surveillance agencies are secretly accessing this huge database in violation of French privacy laws [click here for the article in French, which unlike its English translation displays a graphic and offers an interview of one of the journalists].

This comes after the revelations by the US whistleblower Edward Snowden that similar programmes are being operated by the USA (the NSA’s Prism) and by the UK (the GCHQ’s Tempora). In October 2011, a German hackers’ club revealed that a spyware used by the German police to infiltrate suspects’ computers had been brought to its notice, creating an uproar in that country’s press – see ~35min45sec into the Dutch documentary maker Peter Vlemmix’s Panopticon [in Dutch, but with English subtitles].

Interestingly, a member of the same club, Andy Müller-Maghun, claimed in a conversation between Julian Assange, Jacob Appelbaum, Jérémie Zimmermann and himself, which was broadcast by Russia Today on 20 March 2012, that

storage gets cheaper every year. Actually, we made some calculations in the Chaos Computer Club: you get decent voice-quality storage of all German telephone calls in a year for about 30 million euros including administrative overheads, so the pure storage is about 8 million euros [26min into]

In a recent article in the Financial Times on ISS World Europe, a trade show for surveillance technology held early in June this year in Prague, Chris Bryant mentions the names of several European firms supplying ‘sophisticated internet and telephone communication interception wares‘: Trovicor (Germany), Gamma International (UK, known for its infamous FinSpy spyware – see YouTube), Amesys (France) and Hacking Team (Italy), whose Da Vinci remote control system is claimed to be able to intercept encrypted communications as well as Skype calls, chat messages, web usage in addition to allowing a target’s webcam to be used for spying on them [see their promotional video here]! Given that such eavesdropping software is claimed to have been found in the Middle East after the Arab Spring, one can easily surmise that it is being used by some European governments too.

So welcome to the panopticon! Jeremy Bentham’s vision [1791] of a perfect spatial structure for controlling prisoners is already a reality … except that we are hopefully not yet prisoners and that the panopticon is not a physical building but an ubiquitous construct enabled by our telecommunication technologies and the ever-increasing power of computing and ever-expanding storage capacity:

[page 3 …] It is obvious that, in all these instances, the more constantly the persons to be inspected are under the eyes of the persons who should inspect them, the more perfectly will the purpose of the establishment have been attained. Ideal perfection, if that were the object, would require that each person should actually be in that predicament, during every instant of time. This being impossible, the next thing to be wished for is, that, at every instant, seeing reason to believe as much, and not being able to satisfy himself to the contrary, he should conceive himself to be so.

Remember the words of caution of Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, in a TV interview given in 1958 (available here in transcript as well as in broadcast format):

[..] I mean, what I feel very strongly is that we mustn’t be caught by surprise by our own advancing technology.

This has happened again and again in history with technology’s advance and this changes social condition, and suddenly people have found themselves in a situation which they didn’t foresee and doing all sorts of things they really didn’t want to do.