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Surveillance and Privacy: A Workplace Panopticon in the 21st Century

Information technologies have significantly changed the ways in which companies work and structure their operations. Access to information (mainly through the Internet) is essential for businesses and organisations, but it isn’t easy to manage. In other words, an increasing number of employees are using the Internet at work for personal purposes. However, the solution many companies have found is controversial: never have employees been under such close surveillance. Nowadays, employers use technology to monitor their staff’s web-browsing patterns, keystrokes, social media posts and even private messaging apps.

Even though the prime responsibility of every organisation should be respecting employees’ opinions, human dignity, and confidentiality of private life (Bowie & Duska, 1990, p. 86), many companies violate such rights. Some companies even take photos of their remote-working employees every 10 minutes through their laptop or PC webcams. Undoubtedly, there is something massively intrusive about a digital panopticism which allows the tracking of their employees’ every move.

What is a Panopticon?

Michael Foucault’s concept of panopticism comes from Jeremy Bentham’s “panopticon”, a building design which allows a watchman to observe prisoners without them knowing whether or not someone is watching them. The basic structure for this building is that of a central tower with cells surrounding it (see fig. 1). In the cells are prisoners and in the tower is a watchman. Furthermore, each cell has a window on its outer wall through which sunlight passes -illuminating the cell interior-. Because the tower has blind windows, the watchman is able to see everyone in the cells, but the cell occupiers are not able to see the watchman. As a consequence, they have to assume that there is always a person in the tower watching them.

What is Panopticism?

From Bentham’s panopticon, Foucault derived his concept of panopticism, which he defines in Truth and Juridical Forms as a trait of society by which individuals are under constant surveillance and control. In Foucault’s words:

“Panopticism is one of the characteristic traits of our society. It’s a type of power that is applied to individuals in the form of continuous individual supervision, in the form of control, punishment, and compensation, and in the form of correction, that is, the moulding and transformation of individuals in terms of certain norms. This threefold aspect of panopticism – surveillance, control, correction – seems to be a fundamental and characteristic dimension of the power relations that exist in our society. (…) Today we live in a society programmed basically by Bentham, a panoptic society, a society where panopticism reigns.” (Foucault 70)

A panoptic society, therefore, can be thought of as one in which citizens feel they are under constant supervision, which makes them behave simply out of fear of being caught doing something they are not allowed to do.

What is Digital Panopticon Surveillance?

As explained in an article on CEB/Gartner’s website, “employee monitoring technologies represent the cutting edge of workplace gadgets, and these technologies are already becoming increasingly common, from sociometric badges to tracking devices at desks to sentiment analysis and even experiments with microchipping employees.”

However, and surprisingly, many employees do not resist or object to being monitored, as long as the data collected is later used for improving their own productivity and performance. In another article on CEB/Gartner’s website, Amanda Joseph-Little explains that research shows that relatively few employees consider it unacceptable for their employers to collect this kind of data. It seems like employee monitoring may be a sine-qua-non condition to thrive as a company in the digital age. Or, maybe, a monitoring method which does not violate employees’ right to privacy can still be developed. In any case, the future of workplace surveillance remains a mystery.


  • Articles by The Guardian, The Little Red Blog, and CEB/Gartner (links in text).
  • Bowie, N., & Duska, E. R. F. (1990). Business ethics. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall.
  • Elden, Sturart. “Plague, Panopticon, Police”. Surveillance & Society, 2003,
  • Foucault, Michel et al. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège De France, 1977-78. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, pp. 107-8.

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