Sousveillance as a Response to Surveillance

Five years ago I wrote about the concept of “sousveillance,” which was then a budding counterpoint to surveillance. Surveillance, of course, is the practice of the powerful monitoring people under their dominion, especially people who are suspects or prisoners – or today, simply citizens.  Sousveillance -- “to watch from below” – has now taken off, fueled by an explosion of miniaturized digital technologies and the far-reaching abuses of the surveillance market/state. 

Following my earlier post on corporate espionage of activists, I figured it was an appropriate moment to revisit this topic.  As it happens, the fellow who coined the term “sousveillance,” in 1998 -- Steve Mann, a pioneer in “wearable computing” who teaches at the University of Toronto – has recently written two terrific essays on the subject.  Both were released at the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers] International Symposium on Technology and Society (ISTAS) in June 2013. 

Mann argues that sousveillance is an inevitable trend in technological societies and that, on balance, it “has positive survival characteristics.”  Sousveillance occurs when citizens record their encounters with police, for example. This practice exposed the outrageous police brutality against Occupy protesters (blasts of pepper spray in their faces at point-blank range) and helped transform small citizen protests against Wall Street into a global movement.

In the first of his paired essays, Mann writes:

We now live in a society in which we have both “the few watching the many” (surveillance), AND “the many watching the few” (sousveillance).  Widespread sousveillance will cause a transition from our one-sided surveillance society back to a situation akin to olden times when the sheriff could see what everyone was doing AND everyone could see what the sheriff was doing.  We name this neutral form of watching “veillance” – from the French word “veiller,” which means“to watch.”  Veillance is a broad concept that includes both surveillance (oversight) and sousveillance (undersight), as well as databeillance, uberveillance, etc.

It follows that: (1) sousveillance (undersight) is necessary to a healthy, fair and balanced society whenever surveillance (oversight) is already being used; and (2) sousveillance has numerous moral, ethical, socioeconomic, humanistic/humanitarian and practical justifications that will guarantee its widespread adoption, despite opposing sociopolitical forces.

(This passage is from “Veillance and Reciprocal Transparency:  Surveillance versus Sousveillance, AR Glass, Lifeglogging and Wearable Computing,” available as a pdf download here. A companion essay, “The Inevitability of the Transition from a Surveillance-Society to a Veillance-Society:  Moral and Economic Grounding for Sousveillance,” can be found here.

Mann’s larger objective here is to develop a new set of ideas for describing the social realities of “veillance” in society today, and to propose workable countermeasures to ubiquitous surveillance.  It would be nice to have some empirical social science studies to validate some presumed realities, and to have the perspectives of legal scholars, civil libertarians, law enforcement and others more fully reflected here. 

Still, Mann’s essays are seminal in outlining a territory that urgently need to be developed.  To that end, he gives us a new vocabulary for a more intelligent discussion of the subject.  For example, when surveillance and sousveillance are both treated equally – a more appropriate state – one can say that there is “equiveillance.” More typically, however, there is “inequiveillance.”  If there is only one party consenting to the veillance, there is “univeillance,” and if an absentee, non-participant records some or all parties while at the same time forbidding them from recording themselves, there situation can be described as “McVeillance” – the uniltateral “sensory entitlement” that many business establishments assert over their premises. 

One of my favorite stories in my book Brand Name Bullies, about copyright and tradekmark abuses, focused on Starbucks, which in 2003 (and still?) prohibited people from taking photos within their coffee shops worldwide.  (Or at least, customers in San Francisco, Bangkok, Manhattan and Durham, North Carolina, and many other locations checked in with near-identical accounts of being told to put away their cameras in the shop.)  Most customers were simply taking casual photos of their friends.

Some retail experts explain that stores often prohibit photography within their premises to prevent would-be thieves from finding security breaches and to prevent competitors from spying on prices, retail displays and trademarked interior designs.  et customer reaction to such one-way snooping by retailers was indignant and angry, especially in reaction to innocuous photography of friends drinking coffee.  One customer quipped online, “When cameras are outlawed, only outlaws will have cameras!”  As it is, only the store now has the right to use video surveillance. 

Steve Mann suggests that people may want to start using new “counterveillance” technologies to detect and neutralize surveillance cameras.  They could be worn on clothing as “spite fashion” or “spitewear,” if only as a social commentary.  The point, he argues, is that we should all have “the right to sensory integrity.”  Everyone should have “a basic right to the data generated by their own senses.”  He adds that people ought to have at least the same level of protection of their own person, as does a department store of its merchandise.”  (This brings to mind Malcolm McCullough's recent book, The Ambient Commons, which focuses on the enclosure of informal, peripheral spaces in public life.)

To formally legalize this right, Mann and a colleague, Wassell, actually drafted a proposed law for the “policy, practice and enforcement of personal sousveillance.”  Among the rights that the law would protect:  the right of people to “capture video recording of their personal space for self protection and accurate records in any public place (including restaurants); even establishments that ban such practice.”

Mann suggests that the use of veillance technologies ought to follow the norms of contract law.  If one party is using a veillance technology, then another party ought to be entitled to use their own counterveillance technology to record an interaction – just as any contract requires two informed, consenting parties.  If the surveillance party prohibits or discourages people from sousveillance – which amounts to a copy of the “veillance contract” – then a court of law should regard the surveillance recordings as inadmissible evidence in any future proceeding – just as a contract produced by one party, without a countersigned copy, would be inadmissible. 

To make this idea more practical, Mann has actually developed a fully functional “Wearable Wireless Webcam” for sousveillance, also known as “lifeglogging.” (See photo above.)  While I’m not sure I want to all of my life’s interactions recorded like some airliner's black box, I sympathize with Mann’s complaint that the exclusive right of unilateral veillance should not belong to property owners alone. The idea of a “social contract” must be honored in some meaningful fashion, especially as it becomes clear that one-sided surveillance powers can and will be abused. 

Sousveillance at least has the virtue of empowering ordinary people to protect themselves and to hold power accountable.  One need only look at a few cautionary examples of “people’s recordings” that have altered history:  the Zapruder film (undermining the Warren Commission’s and news media’s “lone gunman” claims), the Rodney King video (documenting L.A. police brutality), the videos of police violence against Occupy protesters and anti-Iraq War demonstrators.  At a time when powerful corporations and government agencies are savagely violating our privacy with impunity, sousveillance is entirely comparable to the use of personal cryptography:  a defense of our individual autonomy and our ability to sustain a free civil society.     

Needless to say, this issue is fraught with many social and political complexities.  But Mann has helped advance this necessary discussion.  Simply ignoring the systemic abuses of surveillance, or waiting for politically self-serving legislatures to sort things out, are not satisfactory answers.   


Sousveillance for all.

I look forward the the day when the average citizen can purchase and wear a small camera that will upload all events encountered by the wearer. Image how this will effect crime for instance, any criminal act perpretrated on the wearer of such a device will automatically be uploaded and stored in the internet, even if the wearer is killed there will still be a record of the event, if the camera would be detected and removed or destroyed the images would already be stored online safe from tampering. This would be a revolution in personal safety.