The Needle and the Damage Done: of Haystacks and Anxious Panopticons

Short bio: 

Sarah Logan is a Research Fellow working in the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Program of the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University. Sarah’s research explores the political and social impact of the Internet and mobile phones on domestic and international politics. Sarah is currently engaged in research focused on the political and social impact of such technologies in Melanesia. Sarah was a Fellow in the 2014 Milton Wolf Seminar on media and diplomacy at the Diplomatic Academy Vienna and is a member of the International Relations and Digital Technology Project of the Canadian International Council. She has been a visiting scholar in the Department of Government at the London School of Economics and in the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. Sarah is co-editor of Circuit, a blog looking at international relations and information technology.


A 2014 analysis by the New America Foundation of 225 terrorism cases inside the US since 9/11 concluded that the bulk collection of phone records by the National Security Agency (NSA) has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism. Indeed, notable failures exist where data has been collected by surveillance mechanisms but appropriate action has failed to take place because relevant information has been lost in the ever-growing haystack of (big) data which accompanies such surveillance. This paper asks: how should we characterise these failures of analysis in the context of big data generated by global surveillance? Drawing on official reviews of intelligence failures in the Boston bombings and the failed Detroit airline plot of 2009 in the context of debates in intelligence and security studies the paper argues that these failures demand a fundamental reconfiguration of the concept of powerful, all-knowing state-led surveillance which dominates discussion of surveillance-generated big data in the post Snowden age. The paper analyses the phenomenon via the metaphor of the panopticon, showing that current realities conform to neither the Foucauldian nor other more recent scholarly debates which seek to move the concept forward into an age of big data. It argues that such data and the security apparatus associated with it exist in an age of infinite rather than simply ‘big’ data given the nature of the risk environment in which they operate. This generates an anxious rather than all-powerful panopticon paralysed by the very nature of the data it collects, with associated effects on decision-making in security bureaucracies.