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Bentham on social control  Identification versus anonymity in e-government
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Bentham on identification and control

Bentham is very firm about the superiority of legislative schemes that concentrate on identification. Early or preventive identification of crimes and criminals does not only help criminal law enforcement but also renders it less necessary: ‘The bulk of offences would never be committed at all but for the hope which the culprits harbour that they may remain undiscovered. Everything which tends to improve the expedients for the Identification and Discovery of men engaged in crime adds to the general security’ (Principles of the Penal Code, Part IV, Chapter LIV). This is underlined by his famous proposal to organize state propaganda for measures such as names tattooed on the wrists of people to identify them (supra). The existing customs around the names of individuals, Bentham observes, ‘stand upon such an unsatisfactory footing’ in a great nation with risk of confusion in names. And he continues to fancy about a ‘new nomenclature of such a character that every individual in the whole nation should have a proper name, borne only by himself’ (Principles of the Penal Code, Part IV, Chapter LII).

In a comparative and historical perspective, Bentham could be labelled as a thinker giving philosophical backing to a tradition of identification and control that started decades before his time. Indeed, the main ingredients of the high policing model were already defined in the seventeenth and eighteenth century (Brodeur, 1983). In a 1749 memoir on the reform of the French police Guillaute, an officer of the Maréchaussée (provincial police), made plain that gathering intelligence -the core feature of high policing- is accomplished not only through the accumulation of data on potential threats; but needs also to be enhanced by exhaustively charting the physical and social space into definite coordinates in order to increase the scope and precision of surveillance. Also in 1749, a decree was proclaimed by the French Ancien Régime government obliging workers to be in possession of a certificate of their employer, a certificate that was later on transformed into an identity card. This powerful tool in the hands of the employer and the local authorities, subjected the labour force to the discretion of the employers, and restricted strongly their physical liberty: without the certificate travelling workers were considered to be vagrants and could be punished. Briefly abolished by revolutionary decrees, the system was re-established in 1803 and only definitely abolished in 1890, when softer techniques of identification and control of the labour masses were available (Heymann-Doat, 1994).

A closer look at the situation in England may correct the foregoing image of Bentham as a philosophical advocate of traditions of identification and control that started before his time. Seen in this perspective, Bentham is actually very much a thinker of his days addressing concrete problems or future problems. One of the problems facing England precisely concerned the question of identification. Serfdom in the middle Ages and the Elizabethan Poor Law afterwards had created a perfect system of immobility of the poor and the dangerous. Legal weakening of this system and larger phenomena such as the Napoleonic wars, the industrial revolution and the building of the railways together with the refusal of Britain’s eastern colonies to accept any more convicts, created population mobility. This in turn created a new problem for governmental social control. Hence the system of penal servitude, the creation of criminal history records, and the acceptance by the government of new identification techniques (Hebenton & Thomas, 1993).

‘Who are you? With whom am I dealing? There would be no room for evasion in answering this important question’ (Principles of the Penal Code, Part IV, Chapter LIV). The result of extensive use of identification techniques, Bentham holds, is altogether liberal: ‘Personal liberty would be enhanced by rendering it possible to relax the rigor of criminal proceedings. Such imprisonment as was directed merely to securing the presence of the prisoner during the pendency of process would become rare, when the man was known to be detained, so to speak, by an invisible chain’ (Principles of the Penal Code, Part IV, Chapter LIV).

There is some common sense in this argument and we can identify several examples to underpin Bentham’s argument about identification and humanism or ‘liberalism’. Fundamentally, however, Bentham’s analysis is perverse. Only a very thin liberty definition allows justifying the spread of identification techniques in the name of ‘liberty’. Bentham seems aware of this, acknowledging that an ‘invisible chain’ remains a ‘chain’, and he himself gives a compelling argument against his own scheme. However, his optimism takes the lead again, and he ignores possible risks that might occur in reality in favor of his theoretical analysis.

This is relevant for our purposes, since Bentham’s remarkably modern language and frame of mind are mirrored in today’s debates about the surveillance society and the control that modern technologies allow governments to have over their citizens. 21st-century ICT infrastructures actually enable an ‘invisible chain’ to an extent that Bentham might not even have dreamt of. Rather than a wrist tattoo, new identification techniques may well serve in equivalent but less visible ways to chain citizens into compliance with societal norms. Many identification systems currently being developed and applied do not overtly have a surveillance purpose but rather have ‘service-delivery’ and efficiency goals. From a Benthamite perspective, however, these modern identification infrastructures can equally well serve purposes of crime prevention, law enforcement, and controling citizens.  


As the next chapters show, for public service delivery, governments need to identify citizens and technology may enable them to enhance the identity knowledge of citizens. What Bentham teaches us, is that the technologies used in public-service delivery for identifying citizens may at the same time serve surveillance purposes, resulting in invisible yet strong chains between government and citizens. This is worth bearing in mind, when studying the identity knowledge of governments in electronic public service delivery. 



Bentham on social control  fidis-wp5.del5.4-anonymity-egov_01.sxw  Select bibliography
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