A World Under Watch: The Promises and Threats of Surveillance in the United States and the Philippines

Justin-Hosman-SMby Justin Hosman
By Justin Hosman, 3L, for globaljusticeblog.com. 

The Greek God Argus Panoptes was endowed with a hundred eyes and, for obvious reasons, was known as a skilled watchman. He was even capable of maintaining his watch while sleeping because a few of his eyes would stay awake while the others slept. The story goes that Argus was assigned to guard a nymph disguised as a cow for the goddess Hera. Zeus needed the cow to establish a new order and commanded Hermes to slay Argus in order to retrieve the nymph. Shouldered with the task of killing one who is always watchful, Hermes lulled all of Argus’ eyes to sleep and then killed him with a stone.

Historically, Panoptes ability to see all things has been the product of science fiction. Only in our wildest dreams have we ever imagined a situation where an individual or a group of individuals could be under surveillance at all times. What once was fantasy is now reality. Rapid advances in technology have made Panoptes’ unique set of eyes a technological reality. After centuries of innovation, the wide chasm of space and time separating societies has been slowly bridged through the introduction of the Internet, and other related technologies. The new world’s capability for surveillance has forced certain questions to the surface of our collective conscience. And the future impact of surveillance technology has now gained the attention of both the Philippines and the United States.

Rapid development in surveillance technology leaves many questions unanswered and the widespread use of surveillance for strategic tactics marches forward. What are the promised benefits of surveillance? What are the underlying costs of surveillance? Under constant surveillance, how would our relationships and our usual flow of interactions change? Are we willing to give our trust to those who watch us? Are we capable of exercising our own freedom under constant surveillance?

This is not the first time we have been faced with the specter of surveillance. The massive surveillance gaze of the United States was once turned on the Philippines, in its efforts to colonize the country. After Spain decided to let go of the Philippines and pass it on to the American forces and during the Philippine-American War, the United States launched an intense surveillance campaign as a part of the American ‘benevolent assimilation’. The early stages of American surveillance in the Philippines would then become the predecessor for a larger and more advanced surveillance machine, eventually to be used even in American soil.

The Effects of Surveillance in the Philippine-American War and the Values it Challenged

In the late 18th century Jeremy Bentham envisioned a prison called the Panopticon, in homage to the Greek God Panoptes. The Panopticon was a prison meant to grind rogues honest through constant surveillance. The crushing weight of constant threat of surveillance endowed the observer with power of mind over the minds of the inmates and it was meant to change their behavior, if not their whole character. Bentham saw surveillance as a tool to be used to gain power and control over those who are observed. In 1898, the United States had a window of opportunity to put Bentham’s thought experiment to the test.

After Spanish forces had left the Philippine colony due to the strengthening of the Filipino revolutionary movement, the Philippine-American War marked the transition from Spanish to American colonization. The American army used its own forces and existing information technologies and created the police and military forces in the Philippines to carry out its surveillance tactics. In 1901, the Army’s intelligence division was in full throttle. Captain Ralph Van Deman, the pioneer of U.S. Military Intelligence had led the division with a hunger for information, which enabled the U.S. Army to amass personal and political details about thousands of Filipino leaders fighting for the nation’s independence. Those who were suspected to be dissidents were constantly watched. Even those who argued for non-violent and legal methods of independence were placed under constant watch. The Americans silenced critics of the American policy-making body in the Philippines by releasing harmful information that destroyed their credibility, which, in turn, almost marred the reputation of Manuel Quezon, the First President of the Commonwealth Republic. Those who found themselves at on the receiving end of the surveillance machine were immediately subdued. The American control of information and surveillance over the young democracy ironically marked its lost autonomy.

Surveillance played a vital role in the success of the United States in stopping the Filipinos who were fighting for independence. The success of the experimental American surveillance system created a precedent for future surveillance activities. Those that were under the surveillance of the army, police, and undercover agents were no longer capable of speaking their mind. It is important to note how devastating the loss of privacy was for those who were fighting for independence. And, probably more crucial, is the understanding that the purpose and aim of surveillance was its subduing effect. The United States was not unaware that surveillance would destroy the opposition. In fact, quite the opposite was true. The United States used surveillance to gain power of mind over the minds of its enemies.

Surveillance: A Threat to Shared Values

History can attest to the massive power that is accessible through surveillance technologies, if it serves your purposes. Surveillance serves a dual function, both preventive and protective. Its preventive function allows its user to collect a vast amount of information, thereby informing the watcher of impending threats, and, to a certain extent, future threats. Alternatively, its protective function enables its user to hide incriminating knowledge and information, which may be accessed by potential enemies.

Why do we value privacy? The ability to create boundaries, allow certain people to know certain information, and keep others from knowing the particulars of our lives is one of the most important facets of relationship creation. Privacy allows the individual to have a sense of control over what information is known and what information is unknown to others. This, in turn, is critical for the process of forging strong interpersonal relationships. The strength of a relationship is directly correlated with the amount of personal information that is revealed within the relationship. For example, one would confide in their spouse about a certain issue, but would never divulge the same information to their employer. The threat of surveillance to privacy is very apparent, as is alters the individual’s behavior in sharing or keeping personal information from others—affecting the strength of the individual’s interpersonal relationships.

Second, related to our ability to establish relationships is our sense of autonomy. At the very least, when someone is watching us when we don’t want him or her to be watching we have lost control over that aspect of our lives. Our sense of autonomy, in large part, is a product of how we choose to use our time when we feel that we are alone or with the ones with whom we have chosen to associate. Additionally, when an individual is being watched it is unlikely that they will act the same way, as they would have if they were not under surveillance. Surveillance has the effect of making us uncomfortable with our associational decisions. Under a surveillance regime the individual loses control over a large portion of her life, she is not able to choose how she distributes the personal information of her life. In a broader perspective, the individual’s economic choices, actions, and associations as well as political ones become constrained or limited.

Third, there is very little trust in a relationship when one party is observing the other at all times. Foremost in the mind of the individual being observed is the idea that the observing party is suspicious of the individual being observed. If the observer were not suspicious then there would be no reason to observe the targeted individual in the first place. In short, the observed individual does not know the exact motive of the observer, which is a concern in itself. The observer does not trust those it observes because there is the possibility of self-fulfilling type behavior. In the decade of American colonization in the Philippines, uprisings gradually declined over a short span of time, because the surveillance mechanisms were very effective in limiting the actions of the Filipino guerilla forces. As part of the surveillance mechanism, the American forces were quick to stop revolutionary behavior by penetrating into Filipino culture itself—disallowing Filipinos to use anti-American colors in any occasion, as well as revolutionary cultural performances.

Fourth, and most importantly, inherent in observation is power. When there are two people in a relationship and one person knows more about the other there is an imbalance of power between the two. When someone is being observed it is very unlikely that they will participate in behavior that does not conform to current norms or standards. Most people generally fear standing alone or apart from the group. When all things are observed this particular fear is heightened and magnified. Individuals are much less likely to participate in activities that would put them at odds with what is deemed culturally acceptable. This concept grants the observing party a huge helping of power over the observed. This is especially true if the observing party is able to manipulate and control standards of acceptable behavior in society, which can be done through legislation, regulation, and various other governmental mandates.

Under the Panopticon: Challenges in the “Surveillance State”

In the aftermath of 9/11 the overwhelming surveillance gaze of the United States has been turned on its own citizens. Recently, the U.S. Government has come under intense scrutiny because of its broad domestic use of surveillance technology. Through people like Edward Snowden U.S. citizens have been informed of the surveillance’s extent and the gravity of the situation has slowly settled on their minds. It gets worse. There is no sign of the United States rolling back their domestic or international surveillance efforts.

The NSA is currently building a massive information storage site in central Utah. Drone technology is exploding and will soon be used for law enforcement and surveillance purposes. And the wide use of computers, mobile devices, and the Internet provide easy access to large amounts of private information. At this point if one is located within the United States it is likely that every aspect of their lives can be observed and scrutinized. Emails that contain particular words will be flagged, phone conversations will be monitored, and geographic location will be tracked. Many people no longer believe that they have any privacy. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to be wrong.

As individuals continue to bear the burden of the government’s all-seeing eye, there will be profound social costs. A lack of privacy will translate into a lack of trust in government, less autonomy, and less functional freedom. The United States champions freedom while subtly undermining it through the use of surveillance. Let us not forget that this is not the United States’ first experience with surveillance. It has been used in the past in order to gain power over the minds of those it watches.

Moving Forward in a World Under Surveillance

Espionage provides interesting insight into this issue. Countries spend a great deal of resources seeking and protecting information. The interesting thing about the situation is that all nations are aware that all other nations are trying to discover their secrets, even with the supposedly increasing efforts toward international diplomacy. It is as if there is an unspoken worldwide understanding that espionage will take place. Will it become necessary for individual citizens to shoulder a lifestyle similar to that of a foreign nation under surveillance? But there is an interesting distinction to be made between state on state espionage and state on citizen espionage. Nations seek information from other countries in order to protect themselves. And in a geopolitical sense, there is a clear enemy. But when the government participates in espionage on its own citizens, there is no clear enemy. All citizens become potential enemies. Should all individual citizens also be considered enemies of the state?

Currently, the promise of protection through surveillance and privacy are being weighed in the minds of many. But once a surveillance state has been established, can it be undone for the sake of privacy and personal freedom? The police regime established in the Philippines during the Philippine-American War stayed long after its creators left. What sort of impetus is necessary to win privacy back? These are the questions that must be answered.

The Philippines faces its own dilemmas about the role of surveillance. Having one of the largest populations to be linked in the Internet’s social media information “database”, a lot of personal and political information is out in the web, for the world to see. The past five years has seen the most extra-judicial killings in the country’s history. This is enough to turn the Philippines into one of the most dangerous countries for journalists. On November 23, 2009, 32 journalists, including 26 supporters and family members of Governor Esmael Mangudadatu, were murdered by armed men of the influential Ampatuan clan in Maguindanao to maintain their power in securing government positions in the province. The violent power struggle through the control of information is still a very important issue in the Philippines. Legislation proposing centralized identification cards for all Filipino citizens has been proposed as a convenience to the state as well as providing easier access to social services for its citizens. Additionally, a law was proposed that encouraged that all cell phone sim cards be registered with the state. The privacy ramifications for such legislation and government action are massive. With new geo-tracking capabilities, this would effectively create a system where any person that owns a cell phone could be found at all times. Even with promised benefits, this proposition poses many of ethical dilemmas. In the Philippines, surveillance still poses a danger because human rights are continually violated and have been violated since the Martial Law period. Military surveillance tactics track down activists and those who are critical of the Philippine government system. Under this regime, surveillance would have served its purpose, to monitor, silence, and control the opposition.


In an age where terrorism and cyber threats are real possibilities, the promise of protection is incredibly attractive. When looking back on tragic events it is easy for one to dwell on past events that, if changed, would have “corrected” the course of history. It is easy for a surveillance advocate to point to a weak link in the law enforcement chain and suggest that more surveillance would have prevented the disaster. Though compelling, these arguments suffer from a great deal of hindsight bias when looking at the situation. Surveillance comes with a cost and can potentially nullify the significant individual rights that we have worked hard and fought to establish. Sacred democratic rights cannot be exchanged for promises of protection. The problem with protection is that it is a matter of escalation. If protections are escalated then the mode of overcoming them escalates in order to meet the challenge. When the challenge is met then protection must, again, escalate. When we step down the path of escalation it is not hard to see a future where all privacy has been sacrificed on the altar of protection.

Now is the time to think about the cost that is attached with surveillance. The cost is tangible. We can learn from the crushing effect it had in the Philippines. Currently, we can observe the devastating consequences of surveillance in the Philippines. We can imagine it through the thought experiments of Jeremy Bentham. And the United States is beginning to experience the effects of the surveillance state. Protection is important and but privacy cannot be completely set aside for a promise that will never be fulfilled. We must look to our most deeply held values of privacy, autonomy, trust, and self-determination as we move forward with the surveillance debate. If we lose our privacy, autonomy, and freedom, will there anything remain that is worthy of protection?

Angelo Lagman
University of the Philippines-Diliman
Nationality: Philippines

Justin Hosman
S.J. Quinney College of Law at The University of Utah
Nationality: United States

Reprinted with permission from the Global Ethics Network