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  • Ryan Hart

The Panopticon

Setting Upload 7 | Uploaded by LUNA


<The Panopticon… it watches you when you’re sleeping, it tracks you when you’re awake, and it knows all the naughty things you’ve done… it’s our own dystopian version of Santa Claus. And while I know all of you work with experts at manipulating the Panopticon, listening to an OptiSec talk about their work is roughly as interesting as listening to pornography with the screen off (you know what’s going on but it just doesn’t do it for you). So I brought in my sweet friend LUNA… who might not know everything about the Panopticon, but at least knows how to explain it to you.><SPYDER>

The Panopticon. That’s a fun word, isn’t it? It sounds techy and sexy and mysterious all at the same time. Which is perfect, because the Panopticon is all of those three things. After all, what would you call a complete stranger watching every moment of your life through some of the most sophisticated code ever written? I get flustered just thinking about it. But that description is missing something, because it doesn’t explain the core purpose of the Panopticon, or what it means to live in Purgatory, supposedly outside its gaze. Because the Panopticon isn’t a system of surveillance. It’s one of control.

The Invisible Prison

If I was to take out my whole wallet, and put it on the table in front of me, and then drink a margarita for a half hour, chances are that my wallet will be there when I’m done. But if I take out a dollar, put it on the table, and go to the bathroom… that dollar would be gone before I came back.

Why? I’m not a big person, I’m probably not going to fight off would-be wallet thieves. I have no mind control powers (at least no more than anyone else in Purgatory). The reason the wallet will be there and the dollar is gone is because the wallet is being watched. And often, the only thing it takes to make the most ruthless of Stringers behave is a witness.

The trick of the Panopticon isn’t that our corporate overlords catch every criminal, punish every transgression, or record every one of your dirty secrets for blackmail later. The trick is that they could. Most thieves rely on the ignorance of their mark to get away: by the time they know you scored, you’ve already gotten away. Under the Panopticon, there is no ignorance, there’s only apathy. You have to ask yourself: “Will they care enough to do something about this?”

Of course, we don’t have that problem. Purgatory may be terrible, the real estate values rock bottom, and the food is awful - but we’re not caught in the Panopticon. As long as you keep to the “safe zones,” scrubbed and sanitized from its feelers, you’re not beholden to the watchers behind the cameras. But that’s a different sort of prison: an invisible cage you can (almost) never leave.

What Is It, Actually?

Ever notice that when you ask anyone “in the know” about the Panopticon, they give you a lot of non-committal answers like they’re trying to turn you down for drinks or something? Not me. I mean, you can buy me all the drinks you want and never get a date, but I’d just love to tell you what the Panopticon actually is.

First, you have the inputs. Everything is an input. It starts with cameras. Not just ATM or traffic cameras, but cameras on your phone, the sensors on cars, everything that takes in an image goes to the Panopticon. She’ll also listen to you; the Panopticon has ears in every speaker, the better to incriminate you, my dear. How, though? What spiderwebs connect everything?

Easy, babe. RFID.

People worry about implanted microchips and vaccines but these days, everything you buy (yes, even the phone you’re reading this on, smartypants) has a Remote Frequency Identification chip in it. Not just expensive stuff like your watch or your smartwallet. Your underwear, for example, has one behind the tag that tells the manufacturer how many times you wash it. I hope, for your sake, it’s after every wear. But more importantly, all those little chips get attached to you: physically when you carry it, and digitally when it’s associated with your IDent Code. And that’s where the Panopticon comes in.

The Panopticon matches every trace of your existence - the images picked up by cameras, the sound your voice makes at a drive-through window, the seismic signature of your guts after that cheap burrito - and matches it to your IDent Code. And then it matches the little chips you’re carrying, along with your digital fingerprint: all those matrix searches, purchases with your credit, even how long you listen to a song on your music player. All of that gets looped into a cloud of data that knows every little thing about you… it’s probably even seen every moment you’ve had, and can play it back in high-fidelity.

Where does she store all that information? It’s nowhere. Or more appropriately, it’s everywhere. Because the Conspiracy has so much data on so many people, they can create a remarkable picture of you from just a shred of your record. They can figure out everything about you by cross-referencing your childhood medical records with your online food orders. How do you hack that?

The answer: you can’t.

You Can’t Hack The Panopticon, You Can Only Hide

This is where your OptiSec comes in, and why they’re so bad at talking about it. Your typical hacker has, at one time or another, tried to spoof, crack or control the Panopticon, and usually, the clever ones have managed to do it. Once. The problem is no trick seems to work twice; an all-knowing system is going to catch any intrusions and fix the vulnerabilities. Even then, these tricks are pretty small. Maybe you can lose a police tail, but you’re really hacking the police, not the Panopticon herself. And then, at some point, some people just “get it” in the same way someone finally figures out how to hit a fastball or make their girlfriend happy. It’s not about hacking the Panopticon, it’s about hiding in it.

There are dead zones in the Panopticon. The Underworld bar is the most notable one. There’s about a block and a half near Corlears Hook, plus about a two hundred by ten foot stretch near the Canal Street F. A lot of Stringers know about these, but not how they got there, why they’re there, or how long they’ll stay. But the problem is, apart from a quick getaway, they’re not that useful - just glitches in the system where Stringers tend to congregate. More useful are what your OptiSecs call “Safe Zones.”

Here’s the important thing about any sort of surveillance: it’s one thing to be caught on camera. It’s another thing entirely when someone is watching.

Safe Is A Relative Term

The truth is, the reason you can’t get a straight answer from an OptiSec about how the Panopticon works is the same reason a pickpocket can’t explain neuroscience or psychology. They don’t really know it works, only how to trick it. Your OptiSec is essentially picking the Panopticon’s Hermes handbag with three things: a light touch, situational awareness, and a lot of misdirection.

What every good OptiSec knows how to do is “read” the Panopticon. They can figure out which areas have a lot of attention and activity, and get a read on who is watching. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and when someone is focused on part of the Panopticon, the rest of the system reacts. Police activity increases, focused advertising changes, even cellular bandwidth increases as the system responds. Similarly, when no one is watching, the Panopticon relaxes.

At a certain point, there’s just not enough activity to hold a human attention span. Assuming there’s no hyperattentive human brain paying attention, a Stringer without an active IDent Code can walk around without having to worry about Corporate Security teams descending into the area. OptiSec calls these areas “Green.”

Now, some Green zones are stable, some come and go, but they’re not the norm. A good Optisec knows that the best way to create a Green zone is to draw attention somewhere else. The trick, however, is not putting the city on high alert: you don’t want to spoof a bank robbery. A better distraction would be a walk-off home run at a baseball game or a one-hour open bar at the city’s hottest club. Something that draws focus but doesn’t put people on alert. When that happens, it creates a “Red” zone. Stringers generally don’t last very long in a Red zone.

Everywhere else, your OptiSec calls “Yellow.” The tigers aren’t lurking, ready to pounce, but Stringers stand out like a crow at a canary convention. They can (and should!) stick to the edges and alleys, keeping a low profile, but any attention is a risk. Most of the city is Yellow, but beware places like busy subway stations, theaters, stadiums and other high-visibility areas. Naturally, this makes travel difficult, so learn to get comfortable where you can.

Speaking of travel, there are areas worse than Red, called “Infrared.” Airports, major train stations, bridges and tunnels – never, ever trust someone who leads you through an entrance with only one exit! You can thank me later – these places are death traps to Stringers. Times Square is typically Infrared, as is most of the Financial District. There are Stringers who have made it in and out of Infrared areas, but most who’ve tried haven’t lived long. And escaping New York? You better have a good plan, and pick the right time, because that sort of travel is for the unrevoked.

So What?

So, your OptiSec, when they’re talking about “10 minutes to Green” and “you’ve got 30 seconds to Yellow,” what they’re really doing is feeding a Red zone somewhere else in the city, and monitoring activity levels. How they do it varies. Sometimes they’re fanning a social media fire, sometimes they manipulate people into causing distractions, and sometimes they just hack various feeds to make a scene someplace. But they’re basically pickpocketing the Panopticon: getting it to look one way while the rest of the crew goes through its back pocket.

Obviously this makes them a unique asset, but why them? They’re not the best hackers or natural con artists, and while we can explain what they do and even how they do it, we can’t tell you why some people figure it out intuitively while the rest of us are stuck following their lead. I like to think I’m a clever girl, but the longer I look into the Panopticon, the more questions I ask. The Panopticon wasn’t made, it evolved, and while the Conspiracy leashed it (at least, for now), they don’t control it. It’s almost like its own beast, and ironically, it seems that just like us, that beast is caged.


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