Authors: J.P.R. van der Laarse & N.L. Neuman
Publication Date: May 7, 2021

With security cameras in public places, police making their regular rounds in neighborhoods, proctors watching students during exams, and government organizations monitoring suspicious behavior online, surveillance is a part of our daily lives. Not only does such surveillance help spot and punish criminal behavior, it also has a psychological effect, and it is this effect that makes surveillance so effective. This is known as the Panopticon effect, first coined by Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century. 

What is the panopticon effect? 
In short, it means that when you know you can be watched, you will behave better. In a public place you are less likely to show bad behavior because you are aware that you can be watched. Thus, you correct your own behavior without the police or other enforcement agents having to intervene. It is this psychological self-policing mechanism (Foucault, 1997) that makes surveillance such a powerful tool.

Bentham first looked at the panopticon model in the context of prisons. And he articulated the dynamic, and requirements, needed to make the panopticon model work. Within this structure, the panopticon takes place inside an annular building of cell blocks, where at the center of the building a watchtower is positioned. Each person within a cell block (the subject) is sectioned off from the other ‘prisoners’ inside their cell block, leading to an individualization of the subjects. The officials within the tower (the observers) are invisible to the subjects, however they have total visibility of the subjects themselves, leading to an asymmetrical power relation. The end result of this surveillance structure is that the subjects create a self-regulating mechanism that replaces the anxiety of being watched and thus adhere to the institutional categories of evaluation and behave as is expected from them. As Foucault explained, “the major effect of the panopticon: to induce the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power”. (Foucault, 1977; Jezierksi, 2006).

According to Foucault, the panopticon model is as fascinating as it is frightening, and it illustrates Foucault’s views on the unequal power dynamic between citizens and government in general in the best possible way.

A Panopticon for the masses
To achieve Bentham’s form of a panopticon model, architectural change is required. It is the well-known dome prisons that are architecturally designed specifically for this purpose. Security cameras achieve the same effect. The subjects can be viewed undisturbed by the observers without the subjects being able to engage in dialogue with them. To make the panopticon a reality, either a lot of money is needed for architectural redesign, or enough money is needed to install means of large-scale observation – such as security cameras. Permission to build and install, as well as the financial resources are  often in the hands of the government and larger organizations. 

The democratization of AI, however, can be a game-changer for this dynamic. A simple algorithm can be developed at relatively little cost and function as thousands of observers. Not only is this useful for governments in the analysis of big data, this same tool can now be used by citizens to create a panopticon effect. AI thus makes surveillance by citizens, Inverse Surveillance, possible.

We do not see inverse surveillance as a counter-action to surveillance by governments and other large organizations. We merely acknowledge that citizens can now, through AI, create a panopticon effect of their own and thereby take part in the activity of surveillance. This presents opportunities in democratizing surveillance AI that we think are worth exploring. Within this research, we recognize that the panopticon effect works and citizens too can successfully use it as a tool. 


  1. Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish : The birth of the prison. Translated by Sheridan, A. New York: Pantheon Books.
  2. Jezierski, W. (2006). Monasterium panopticum. Frühmittelalterliche Studien, 40(1), 167-182.