It may not seem completely appropriate to make the link, but there’s a connection which runs from the McLaren fiasco in the Australian Grand Prix, through the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, to the death last week during the G20 demonstration of Ian Tomlinson. The connection is about information, how much of it there is, how it flows, and who has access to it under what circumstances.

To start with the most trivial example (for who really cares about the rules governing the conduct of Formula One drivers behind a safety car?), it seems that the now-sacked McLaren Sporting Director Dave Ryan told Lewis Hamilton to tell the stewards that Jarno Trulli had broken the rules by overtaking him – when McLaren had advised Hamilton over the radio to let him through. Trulli  was initially penalised 25 seconds for overtaking, which meant that Hamilton was able to claim third place. But Formula One races are tightly cocooned in information. There are video cameras everywhere (including on board all the cars) and all of the radio traffic between teams and drivers is monitored and also recorded (some of the time it’s even played out on television broadcasts). So – Ryan and Hamilton must have had some idea that someone might go back and check the tapes, and, knowing how ruthless the F1 management is, would release them to the media if they thought it would be useful.

Similarly, following the Jean Charles de Menezes shooting, it was only a matter of time before the police RT traffic was made public; yes, it was the property of the police, but as soon as the inquest started the tapes and transcripts became public evidence.

And in the case of the police assault on Ian Tomlinson at the G20 demonstration, although there was no ‘official’ information, at least none that has surfaced yet, it was all but inevitable that in a highly charged environment that people would be taking pictures or video of police behaviour. The chances, these days, of getting away with concealing your face and number before attacking a member of the public at a high profile event are not large. Apart from the attack on Tomlinson there is footage of police tactics all over youtube, and many contemporaneous accounts from demonstrators of police violence, as well as more than 6,000 photos on Flickr on ‘G20’ and ‘police’. (It’s worth contrasting this briefly with the death of Blair Peach at the hands of the Special Patrol Group during an anti-racist riot in Southall in 1979, when Peach was attacked by officers who had removed their identification, where there were eye-witness statements but no pictures or video. Much of the investigation was done by volunteers on the small-circulation radical magazine The Leveller).

In trying to understand how this all works, it’s worth drawing on the useful distinction made by the Norwegian criminologist Thomas Mathiesen, between the ‘panopticon’ and the ‘synopticon’. The panopticon, invented by Jeremy Bentham, was a prison where one guard, sitting in the middle, could monitor all the prisoners. The Victorians liked it so much they built Millbank Prison to his design. Easy to see how the metaphor transfers to the world of the surveillance state.

Where the panopticon is ‘the one watching the many’, the ‘synopticon‘ is the many watching the few. These are not alternatives; instead they happen concurrently. The Ian Tomlinson footage obtained by the Guardian is pure synopticon.

In practice, it’s more complicated than this. The Formula 1 radio traffic, and the de Menezes RT, falls into neither category – at least until something goes wrong. Both are intercom systems with tape recorders attached. But when something does go wrong, and the information gets pushed into the public domain, it becomes a form of synopticon. (As happened, eventually, to President Nixon’s Watergate tapes). And because levels of public trust in institutions continues to fall, and so we have supervisory systems which require increasing levels of accountability, and are increasingly noisy about their ‘transparency’, it also becomes increasingly likely that such internal data will be made public if there is a reason to want to know what happened.

Of course, it’s a bit more complex than this. The panopticon/synopticon discussion frames the debate in rather a binary way. Mathiesen coined the term in 1997, but had the mass media in mind, at a time when the explosion of cheap technology and large-scale web-based distribution was largely still to happen. Of course, without democratic engagement and independent institutions, mass media can easily become ‘the few watching the few’. There were times, after all, when the Washington Post came close to abandoning its Watergate investigation; the independence of the Senate and its investigators were also critical, as was the integrity of the then Attorney General, Elliott Richardson.

In the age of the internet, Benoit Dupont has extended the idea of the synopticon to “the democratization of surveillance” (opens in pdf), covering both media production and publishing of public interest information by citizens, and also data and mapping which uses public data to identify patterns and to put government data into the public domain (see this paper, in pdf, on using satellite data to monitor military and security sites). Web-based applications, he notes, also enable people to mask themselves from the panopticon.

Under the guise of security and other legislation, the state continues to try to prevent this. The recent UK ‘terrorism’-related law prohibiting photography of police officers is already abused by officers. The EU’s claims on online data become increasingly extensive. [Update 13.04.09: And, according to a John Naughton column, ‘Little Brother is watching you’. police increasingly harass amateur photographers]. Perhaps for this reason, the  British academic Robert Reiner is sceptical as to whether the synopticon is more than the lightest of checks on the panopticon. But we’re not that far away from the day when we could be recording all of our lives and storing it, as ‘lifelogs’, as the science fiction writer Charlie Stross has suggested before. When that day comes, we’ll all be living in the world of the Formula 1 race. And then it will matter – a lot – who has the right of access to all of that data, and under what circumstances.

Update 11 April 2009: I’ve been pointed towards the work of Steve Mann on ‘inverse surveillance’, or ‘sousveillance’ – a French term (neologism?) for ‘undersight’ which also works as an Anglo-French pun. He has a good article explaining the concept – which makes a distinction between ‘in-band surveillance’, welcomed by the organisation, such as the ‘How Am I Driving?’ freephone numbers on the backs of lorries, and ‘out of band surveillance’, which isn’t.

The journalist Ian Jack also has an interesting column on the nature of photography and the rise of the citizen-cameraman which asks:

One question arising from [police chief Bob] Quick’s case is, do people have the right not to be photographed? Or do we demand the freedom to take and publish pictures of everything and anybody all the time? … These arguments are sure to grow because most of us in some incoherent but fundamental way believe we own the visual rights to ourselves. An even bigger argument, devolving from writers such as Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes, concerns our predisposition to think of photography as the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It isn’t.

Update 2, 19 April 2009: The chair of Britain’s Independent Police Complaints Commission, Nick Hardwick, picks up specifically on this surveillance/sousveillance point today when he talks about the difference it makes in terms of evidence – a sharp contrast between the G20 protests and those of the Countryside Alliance five years ago, where there were complaints but few upheld A couple of quotes from the Observer article”:

“What’s been important with all these pictures is we have got such a wide picture of what happened,” he said. “I think that is challenging the police: they have to respond to the fact that they are going to be watched, there is going to be this evidence of what they have done.” Hardwick said that while the IPCC had attempted a number of prosecutions over the Countryside Alliance demonstration these had failed: “We had to go with what the court said but we were very very surprised at some of the verdicts. I don’t think this would happen now because there would be all this evidence.”