The Surveillance City That’s Always Watching You

In Chapter 3 of our Trump City series, “smart city” tech becomes a boon for a federal government intent on taking a look at citizens.

The Surveillance City That’s Always Watching You
[Photos: Suljo/iStock, depo881/iStock]

This article is part of our seven-part series on the future of cities under President-elect Trump, for which we asked experts in urban planning, city surveillance, and social reform to describe the city they imagine under the policies of the new administration.


From George Orwell’s fictional 1984 to real examples like North Korea’s prison camps, Americans have long feared the consequences of living in a malevolent surveillance state. But to many experts, such a dystopia is looking less like fiction and more like an imminent reality.

Through my interviews, three separate subjects compared the future of the American city–unprompted–to a panopticon.

The panopticon was a theoretical building envisioned by social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. Bentham imagined a circular jail, in which a single watchman could observe everyone, and yet no one knew if they were being observed. As a result, Bentham reasoned, inmates would always have to act as if they were being watched.

Similarly, experts believe that the smart city of today, loaded with surveillance cameras and facial recognition systems, could become a panopticon in the hands of the Trump administration. People would live in fear of an all-seeing government that’s using city infrastructure to surveil them.

“I’m very concerned about civil liberty and privacy issues. We’ve been trying to get the government to cut back on collecting information about people in many different contexts. And in the past, I don’t think people realized that we could end up with a leader who believes his opponent should be put in jail,” says Jennifer Lynch, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “So we’ve already created this infrastructure in our country where we rely on a lot of data collection, because we thought we would live in the kind of meritocracy we’d lived in for the last eight years, and now things are potentially very different.”

The specifics of surveillance vary from city to city, but facial recognition already affects 117 million Americans. But groups like the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office–which oversees St. Petersburg and Clearwater, Florida–are already tapping DMV mugshots to run 8,000 monthly searches on 7 million Florida drivers–all without a warrant. That’s worrisome at the local level, but the data being collected is often legally viewable by the U.S. government, too. Such technology would allow tracking of Muslims, immigrants, or any other individual or group at odds with the Trump administration. And if this local tracking couples with federal databases working together for the first time, all sorts of panoptic scenarios are possible.


Imagine: The DMV has your face. The IRS has your address. A city camera can identify you walking down the street. Then, it’s up to the DHS to decide whether you, a Muslim, are a terrorist threat. “So far I don’t think the IRS has shared that information with ICE or the DHS,” Lynch cautions. “But there’s certainly the possibility.”

Indeed, there is precedent for this kind of action. In the 1940s, the U.S. used its census data to round up Japanese-Americans and put them in internment camps. Today’s advanced sensor networks could serve to enable our worst prejudices.

Even if the surveillance city isn’t put to work rounding up people en masse, it still has the potential to thwart civil disobedience. “Of the 52 agencies that we found to use (or have used) face recognition, we found only one, the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, whose face recognition-use policy expressly prohibits its officers from using face recognition to track individuals engaging in political, religious, or other protected free speech,” writes the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law in a recent report. In other words, our surveillance technology is now reaching far beyond the safeguards of legislature, and Americans’ long-standing freedom to protest and demonstrate publicly are at risk as a result.

“We no longer have slavery, women can vote, gay people can get married. These are social movements that might never have been able to take off if we had the mass surveillance we do today,” says Lynch. “Now it’s much easier to stop mass protests before they start.”

Read Chapter 4: The Super Affluent City That’s Surrounded By Poverty

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.