In the cult 1960s TV series, The Prisoner, the main protagonist is a secret agent who gets gassed and kidnapped upon resigning, and wakes up in an avant-garde closed community (“The Village”) in which one’s every conversation and interaction is monitored and recorded by the mysterious authorities.  Deprived of a name, and given a unique identifying number (“Number 6”) that he has to use to gain access to the Village’s facilities, the eponymous Prisoner engages in cat and mouse games with his warders in each episode, as they try to pry from him the real reason why he resigned.

Prism - Are You A Prisoner?
Prism – Are you just a number or are you a free man?
(Image via Shuttlestock)

Does this sound familiar to you, even if have you never seen the programme? Does the above description strike a chord, given recent headlines over the US’s National Security Agency’s activities with covert online monitoring and surveillance? If so, maybe you might regard yourself as ‘a prisoner’ of Prism (the name given to the US data program for such surveillance activities).

But let us take a step back from all this, before we start reaching for the tinfoil hats and ripping the routers from our walls.  What exactly is being monitored and what are the arguments for actually doing so?

The opening titles to “The Prisoner”

Given the proliferation of online crime, whether it be identity theft, terrorist activities or images of child abuse, one cannot really expect our authorities to stand back and let the internet become a dangerous free-for-all for those who are less civic-minded than ourselves.  Some form of engagement with the online community by the State and its legal enforcers is to be both expected and welcomed if we want to preserve our own liberties and rights, as well as ensure that justice can be applied to those who are a clear, legitimate threat to the underpinning principles of our society.

We must also ask ourselves what exactly is being monitored and through which processes are the permissions to do so granted.

In regards to the social networks, our social media conversations are, in effect, a form of online publishing.  The vast majority of those who post to Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus et al are doing so in a way that ensures their comments are broadcast and circulated to the largest or most appropriate audience possible.  Although all the major social networks offer filtering and sheltering of our posts to some degree, we are ultimately publishing in a public domain, whether it be a domain of 20 friends on Facebook, 50 connections within a particular Google Plus Circle or to 1,000 followers on Twitter.

Have you ever read the Terms and Conditions of use for all the social networks that you are on?  All, without exception, have some clause within in them that allows the network to flag up or report illegal activity and offers a degree of ambiguity for the network as to their own proactive monitoring.

You may have also noticed that all of the most popular social networks are free at the point of use to the user.  When was the last time you paid to use Facebook, Twitter or Google Plus?  Chances are that you have never done so, unless you use these networks in a professional or commercial capacity.  None of the social networks are altruistic ventures designed to make the world a better, more connected place even if that may have been the original intentions of some; they are now powerful companies with a workforce to pay and (in some cases) shareholders who need to be rewarded.  If you’re not paying to use the network, you yourself must somehow offer something of value for your ongoing use of it, and in this case it is your personal data which can be used for advertising paid for by companies to target you specifically. In short, if you are not paying for the service, you are in fact the product.

The sad fact is that we are actually already aware of this, but we may not be willing to admit it to ourselves.  Because we want such an easy, popular service for nothing, we make a Faustian pact with Facebook and the others for ongoing access.  Why do you think Facebook and other platforms want to know what music you like, which shops you go to, the restaurants you eat in, where you are educated, and what your religious and political views are?  It’s not primarily to find old friends or tell your online ones what they probably already know; it is to sell us Coca-Cola, cheap holidays, tickets to pop concerts or new cars most relevant to the online profile we have constructed for ourselves.  And there is nothing necessarily wrong with all that as long as you are aware that it is part of the deal you have made. Faust 2.0, if you will.

If we go back to the example of The Prisoner, the character Number 6 was deeply reserved and guarded to a fault, determined not to give his game away.  The Prisoner analogy crumbles at first contact with the concepts of modern social networks because we tend to give everything away online, consciously or not. We live in an age of narcissism and exhibitionism, where no detail in our daily lives is too small and no thought too frivolous to be broadcast globally on the internet to all those who may possibly be interested in glorious selves.

We are eager consumers of all this, with most willing to share all these personal details so we get something in return – a free social media platform.  So why do we strongly object to law enforcement agencies or governments reviewing this material if we have put it online ourselves?  There is no collective gun to our head, obligating us to use the social networks.  Indeed, alternatives which you pay for are available (if not particularly popular), and then there are other modes of interaction such as the telephone (which we will return to) and the lost art of actually going to see someone.

To a certain but lesser extent, the same principles apply to other free online services away from the social networks.  Free e-mail clients such as Gmail and Hotmail are not paid for by the user, so you have to ask yourself what’s in it for the companies that provide these services?  If you want secure e-mail, you can easily pay for it through another provider.  The same goes for Skype, which is now owned by Microsoft.  Have you ever paid for a Skype video call?  No? Well, don’t be shocked if your call has been recorded or analysed in some way (however vague) for either commercial or law enforcement purposes.

President Obama on the Prism revelations, via ABC News

However, this article is not intended to be a paean to the righteous intervention of all governments for all our online communications.  While we should be understanding of the need for the State to monitor or intervene with what can be posted online by an individual, we should also be deeply concerned about the oversight of those who are authorised to do so on our collective behalves.  It is also heavily reliant on the kind of State we live in, whether the State in question ensures the rights of the individual against temporary, irrational tides of mass public opinion, and whether it has genuine elected officials who have genuine access and control over what is being done to protect the citizens of that nation and that nation itself online.

Any tolerance of State activity of the web is also dependent on how the data on any one individual is accessed and stored (for whatever duration).  For example, would a State employee need sufficient sign off from a superior before he could access someone’s Facebook messages (for example), and would that superior in turn be held to account if the permission to do so was given wrongly?  If having accessed that individual’s Facebook messages, the State investigator found no evidence of wrongdoing, would all records or notes on those messages be destroyed, or would they be stored on a centralised system?  If the latter, how long would that data remain on that system before it was reviewed again?  Would the individual concerned be notified that his messages are being stored on a central government system at any point?

Edward Snowden argues why he was right to leak details about Prism to the press

This issue becomes a lot more serious when concerning communication between two individuals or a small group on channels that are believed to be private and on subject matter that has not been deliberately put in the public domain (unlike posts on social networks).  In the same way that a warrant has to be sought to tap a suspect’s telephone, surely permission needs to be sought to raid someone’s inbox and sent items on e-mail?  The timing of this permission is also crucial; permission needs to be sought prior to obtaining the records, messages or recordings rather than having a vast database of such things that are sorted through upon such a request.  Private dialogues should not be recorded or logged en masse on some form of central database as a matter of course, as this is a violation of our rights as individuals and a clear abuse of power by an overreaching state.  Public postings on social networks is another matter, as the poster has already consented in part for that communication to have a wide audience.

In the UK, we have a Data Protection Act that imposes guidelines on what data organisations can hold on an individual and how long for, and also determines how we give our consent to such organisations in the first place.  It seems self-evident that similar, tougher regulation needs to be in place for government activities in the monitoring of their citizens’ activities if we are going to tolerate these sometimes (arguably) necessary interventions.

A lot of the morality of what governments can or should do online is determined by the national and ethical debate elsewhere, and emphasises the need of having clear checks and balances on all mechanisms of the State.  Using online profiling could easily be abused by a totalitarian or extremist regime if they ever came into power in the UK, and one can envisage abuses of ‘Big Data’ that keep in line with the darkest chapters of human history.  However, I have faith in western democracies in keeping the rights of its citizens balanced with pressing security needs without the latter ever being used as an excuse for political or prejudicial activity.

However, you the reader have a choice in all of this as well.  Perhaps review what you share online about yourselves and ask whether it is in fact necessary if you have concerns about how the State and other organisations can use or access your data through schemes such as Prism.  To go back briefly once more to The Prisoner, the series ended on a psychedelic note when Number 6 discovered that the chief warder of the Village (“Number 1”) was in fact himself, and maybe that’s true of our own use of social networks; we, indirectly, willingly provide the information to be scanned by governments, so maybe we are our own worst enemies when it comes to our privacy.  


Nick Lewis has previously lectured at the University of Sheffield on Social Media.  If you would like Nick to speak on Social Media to your class, business or organisation, please contact Nick Lewis Communications today by e-mailing

Nick Lewis is a communications professional with over 15 years’ experience of working in both the private and public sector.

Nick is now using his wealth of skills and experience to help small businesses and organisations adapt to the modern online age. He helps individuals understand the possible successful applications of Social Media for their business and how they can use and monitor online materials and Social Media themselves to meet their professional goals.

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