"Santa Claus and the Surveillance State"

He sees you when you're sleeping. He knows when you're awake.

He's everywhere.

And that's the whole point of the Elf on the Shelf, the bright-eyed, Kewpie-esque doll that millions of parents display around their homes in December as a reminder to children to behave. The elf, the story goes, is an agent reporting back to Santa Claus, and he's tasked with documenting any seasonal misdeeds for his jolly boss.

The elf also, a new paper argues, promotes acceptance of a surveillance state. An excerpt from co-authors Laura Pinto and Selena Nemorin:

Children...may not touch the doll, and they must accept that the doll watches them at all times with the purpose of reporting to Santa Claus. This is different from more conventional play with dolls, where children create play-worlds born of their imagination, moving dolls and determining interactions with other people and other dolls.

Instead, the elf encourages children "to accept or even seek out external observation of their actions outside of their caregivers and familial structures."

Also, this.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Posted on December 25, 2014 at 6:21 AM • 32 Comments

Comments

AlanSDecember 25, 2014 8:32 AM

The authors of the paper are incorrect to assert that "Michel Foucault (1979) saw the panopticon as a perfect symbol of modern surveillance societies". See Chapter 3 in Foucault's Security, Territory, Population lectures. Or at least it might be a symbol but it isn't a good model of most modern surveillance because it is limited by architecture.

BoppingAroundDecember 25, 2014 9:17 AM

Cannot resist the urge to post this dialogue again.

JC DENTON How about a report on yourself?

MORPHEUS
I was a prototype for Echelon IV. My instructions are to amuse visitors with information about themselves.

JC DENTON
I don't see anything amusing about spying on people.

MORPHEUS
Human beings feel pleasure when they are watched. I have recorded their smiles as I tell them who they are.

JC DENTON
Some people just don't understand the dangers of indiscriminate surveillance.

MORPHEUS
The need to be observed and understood was once satisfied by God. Now we can implement the same functionality with data-mining algorithms.

JC DENTON
Electronic surveillance hardly inspires reverence. Perhaps fear and obedience, but not reverence.

MORPHEUS
God and the gods were apparitions of observation, judgment, and punishment. Other sentiments towards them were secondary.

JC DENTON
No one will ever worship a software entity peering at them through a camera.

MORPHEUS
The human organism always worships. First it was the gods, then it was fame (the observation and judgment of others), next it will be the self-aware systems you have built to realize truly omnipresent observation and judgment.

JC DENTON
You underestimate humankind's love of freedom.

MORPHEUS
The individual desires judgment. Without that desire, the cohesion of groups is impossible, and so is civilization.

The human being created civilization not because of a willingness but because of a need to be assimilated into higher orders of structure and meaning. God was a dream of good government.

You will soon have your God, and you will make it with your own hands. I was made to assist you. I am a prototype of a much larger system.

Merry Christmas, people.

lmDecember 25, 2014 12:53 PM

Until Santa goes Russian style and disables the transponder...and starts flying around NATO countries.

d33tDecember 25, 2014 1:40 PM

"Instead, the elf encourages children "to accept or even seek out external observation of their actions outside of their caregivers and familial structures.""

Trivializing surveillance is a bad idea for "us", and a great idea for "them". I've heard the notion that "no one is entitled to privacy in public places" argued and parroted many times over the years. Some of "us" have learned to accept surveillance via constant exposure to things like the display of all of the obvious cameras on light poles and fake airport "security" screenings. I wonder what really obviously, intrusive, novelties will follow the "Elf on the Shelf" right in the privacy your own home? Maybe voluntary surveillance through cameras built into televisions and or video game consoles?

Oops, old news.

BoppingAroundDecember 25, 2014 4:53 PM

d33t,

> I wonder what really obviously, intrusive, novelties will follow the "Elf on the Shelf" right in the privacy your own home? Maybe voluntary surveillance through cameras built into televisions and or video game consoles?

That and all kind of 'smart' devices controlled by anyone but the user. Unless you unplug them (where it will possible to do so).

See Amazon Echo for example.

AlanSDecember 25, 2014 5:19 PM

@Jordan Brown

Both NORAD and Google track Santa. Like everyone else, he's subject to both government and corporate surveillance.

cjcDecember 25, 2014 11:02 PM

This is nothing new, is it?

"He knows if you've been sleeping,
He knows if you're awake,
He knows if you've been bad or good..."

And isn't surveillance by supernatural beings pretty much a feature of every religion ever? Haven't parents always tried to maintain the illusion in their small children that parents are omniscient about every action the child takes? Even knowing the children's inner thoughts?

DanielDecember 25, 2014 11:30 PM

@cjc

That's correct. It has evolutionary roots. There has been much research done in the animal kingdom on ideal parenting traits and it has been shown that parents who are more attentive to the whereabouts of their children have more offspring who survive. Chimpanzees learn from their parents by imitation. So being judged by higher powers has genetic advantages. To some degree all social hierarchies reflect archaic evolutionary constructs.

I look at something like Elf on the Shelf as vestigial (in the biological sense). Learning strategies that made sense of the savannahs of Africa don't make sense anymore. We don't need to know where our children all the time because society has so structured childhood so we can find out in a jiffy. But these parental instincts die hard, and it doesn't make it any easier that religion has in effect moralized or spiritualized these instincts.

Clive RobinsonDecember 26, 2014 4:02 AM

@ paranoia destroys ya,

You can't spell Santa without NSA.

Actually Santa is an anagram of "Ta, NSA", which I'm sure the sales reps for those companies pushing those near usless "all in one" security solutions at vastly inflated prices are saying since the Ed Snowden Revelations....

Any way now that Xmas day is over, it is time for that favorite pursuit of neo-consumers the "Boxing Day Sale bargain hunt", where they use all maner of tricks to get that most desired state of having "snapped up a bargain" out of another neo-consumers cold bloodless hands...

That said in the UK it would appear that some shops over stocked on tablets, so I might just treat myself to a "vanity toy" to play with and my nearest and dearest to play either MineCraft or Angry Birds on thus saving the batteries in their smart phones B-)

Clive RobinsonDecember 26, 2014 6:37 AM

This "elf Story" reminds my of Furbies the first time around but in an opposite way....

The Furbie made random sayings from time to time, some people said it was actually randomly recording and replaying what people around it had said. Many others believed this, so much so that one well known member of the Intel Community, sent out orders that Furbies were a security risk and had them baned from offices (or so the story goes).

That said, the All Seeing Elf idea, has been converted into real life some years ago, with CCTV cameras and low power UHF transmitters put inside toys and everyday items to be put into areas where vulnerable people are, to check that they are not being abused by their paid care givers. Thus I have in the past put small CCTV and recording equipment in toys like teddy bears for parents etc.

It would not be difficult to put all the IO required to make such an Elf interactive and animatronic, what we don't have is the AI at a level to make it believable for very long. When we do the idea of "robot carers" will no doubt come to the fore (with rapidly increasing geriatric population). The question then will be, are they seen as "creepy" as current "home utility" robots are, which basicaly use networking back to real humans, who control the utility robots (New Scientist had an article on this recently).

Many hope to make such Robots socialy acceptable as it is seen as the only practical way humanity can carry on with the "working population" diminishing as more and more humans outside that group have vastly improving outcomes/longevity and thus numbers.

WaelDecember 26, 2014 6:41 AM

@Clive Robinson, @paranoia destroys ya,

Actually Santa is an anagram of...
I wish you hadn't said that, now you'll get me started... Santa Claus is an anagram of Assualt can. Con BIOS Rev Nil is an anagram for Clive Robinson, how suitable!
And: "Atonal Insecurity Agency" is an anagram for "National Security Agency". Or, just as relevantly, "Can't Nail Saucy TOR Eyeing"

JoeDecember 26, 2014 5:02 PM

Santa is also an anagram of Satan.

We have the elf on the shelf but I nixed the idea that he reports to anyone. She just flies around at night and the challenge is to find her in the morning. Before the dog does.

TroutwaxerDecember 26, 2014 10:41 PM

"Bow down, bow down
Before the power of Santa
Or be crushed, be crushed
By... his jolly boots of doom!

William LeeDecember 27, 2014 2:58 AM

I've noticed discussion of Elf on the Shelf on other places on the web, and there seems to be heavy defense of it along the lines of "Religion has always been about making you feel watched over" as if that justifies surveillance in any way.

This must be the only blog that I've seen so far that hasn't fallen into the sort of circular reasoning that completely ignores the fact that the purpose of organized religion has always been about subjugation & control, which is of course the goal of the CIA/NSA. I suppose that says something about the readers here. Or maybe it doesn't.

Anyway, marketing this as a 'new tradition' is just... disturbingly gross on many levels. Everything about Elf on the Shelf is utterly revolting.

Unwitting Sleep Study Subject December 27, 2014 8:21 AM

If Santa knows when you've been sleeping and knows when you're awake, then he's conducting sleep studies which where I live are done at medical facilities by licensed physicians upon request and with the knowledge and permission of the patient. Santa may not know it, but he's engaging in the practice of medicine without a license. And he's also violating the first rule that was issued by Military Tribunal One at Nuremburg in the doctor's cases, which actually spared many Nazi doctors who had referred mentally ill and handicapped people to be sent to "disposition centers". However a number of doctors were hung and a number sentenced to long prison sentences. Santa may need to watch out for the International Court of Criminal Justice because he's violating a cardinal rule of the medical profession, which must adhere to the Hippocratic Oath. Play, Pretend doctors like Santa don't know about such things and when fools engage in the practice of medicine, people get harmed. So we need to decide what we're going to do about old Santa. I'd say "Book 'im Dano".

stvsDecember 27, 2014 9:09 PM

Wrong surveillance state! Santa's all-seeing power is simply a Christian metaphor for their all-seeing god.

Proverbs 5:21, "The Lord clearly sees everything you do. He watches where you go."

This is why Christopher Hitchens aptly called Christian heaven a "celestial North Korea".

Santa is supposed to teach Christian children to accept an all-seeing dear leader, not the NSA.

Brendon RossDecember 28, 2014 6:22 PM

I read part of the paper claiming that this elf promotes acceptance of a surveillance state as well and I must say I somewhat agree. But only partially. On one hand, I think that people love to read TOO far into things. An Elf on the Shelf in my opinion is just an extension of Santa. When I was young my mom would tell me that Santa can always see whether I am acting good or bad. Instead of parents using Santa they are using this Elf now. The only problem is that the Elf is now actually in the home instead of in "the cloud" as Santa was. So I do see the connection between surveillance becoming MORE prevalent with the move from a being you don't see to something you can.

I don't think children should need an "all-seeing" creature or being in order to behave. I think using that is a parent's last straw and comes across as lazy. That is only my opinion though.

Great article mate!
Brendon

Ryan DDecember 29, 2014 1:30 PM

The PolicyAlternatives paper hits it on the head when it says the Elf on the Shelf "sets children up for dangerous, uncritical acceptance of power structures." And the key word there is "uncritical".

Antonio MenezesDecember 29, 2014 2:31 PM

I can relate strongly to the surveillance issue. I am a Human Rights activist and have been under surveillance for over 5 years with no charges brought. Until the Snowden revelations I could not fathom how so much money could be devoted to keeping their eye on the "wrong ball". During this time Lee Rigby was murdered and the perpetrators were on their radar before the event and got away. The Islamic State came into being and if they were sharp about their work they would have spotted it. What you have here is an organisation that has a limitless budget, no accountability, with no clear cut objectives and they operate with impunity. This was well pointed out by G Greenwald in his Ottawa talk where he said that they operate like a state within a state. Change of parties make little difference. Democracy is an illusion. This is a most serious charge!
The 5+ years have given me an insight into what these guys are up to. They have followed me across borders and over continents. I have come to recognise some of the operatives. What kind of salary scale do they have? Double time when they are away from base? Surely this is open to abuse. I have posted on my experience.
antonio31801/sledgehammered acorn
@tony47menezes
Antonio Menezes

AutolykosJanuary 4, 2015 9:02 AM

@cjc:

And isn't surveillance by supernatural beings pretty much a feature of every religion ever? Haven't parents always tried to maintain the illusion in their small children that parents are omniscient about every action the child takes? Even knowing the children's inner thoughts?

Yup, it's one of the ways some parents exploit their children's gullibility to make their job easier (at first). But apart from the fact that it treads pretty damn close to mental child abuse, it can also spectacularly backfire when someone else with less than honorable intentions exploits that their child never learned to question what it is told by adults. Backdoors compromise security for everyone...

DavidJanuary 6, 2015 3:04 PM

"it can also spectacularly backfire when someone else with less than honorable intentions exploits that their child never learned to question what it is told by adults."

Yes -- the parental and religious analogies vis-a-vis our biological need to be watched and judged fall apart when you realize that this time around, the "watcher" is neither benevolent nor superior. Instead, the watchers are now simply peers with whom we compete for power and resources. This has little or no benefit to us, but places us at a breathtaking disadvantage.

I have been arguing for some time now that parity is where we should be aiming. You can't put the genie back in the bottle -- we should instead demand complete transparency.

In a small town, everyone knows everyone else's business: the playing field is level. In the modern world, the elites know everyone else's business. This is where the big win can be.

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