Sousveillance: Watching from Below

We have been talking recently about NITs and their potential use in surveillance, which we defined as:

“Purposeful, routine, systematic and focused attention paid to personal details, for the sake of control, entitlement, management, influence or protection.” (UK Information Commissioner’s Office, A Report on the Surveillance Society, p. 4)

Another useful way to think about surveillance is to consider the French roots of the term, which we can roughly translate as “watching over,” or perhaps, “watching from above.”

The examples we have discussed over the past week or so have focused on the idea of surveillance as “watching from above,” as a practice of monitoring carried out by organizations (whether governments or businesses) and directed primarily at individuals and their behavior. We have also considered how NITs can be used to facilitate surveillance, making it potentially more effective by simplifying the process of gathering, compiling, sorting, and analyzing information.

However, as we have also discussed, this effectiveness does not necessarily meant that a particular instance of surveillance is proper, or that the conclusions drawn from surveillance are necessarily correct. NITs can make the process of doing surveillance more efficient, but they cannot guarantee that societies manage that process to balance the rights of individuals with the needs of communities as a whole. That task still falls to people operating within their social and political environments.

But as we have also seen this term, the benefits of NITs are not felt only (or perhaps even primarily) from the top down. Access to networked computing technologies often gives individual users much more opportunity to gather, compile, and distribute information. In many ways NITs make it possible for individuals to watch the watchers.

To put it another way, one possible response to surveillance and the rise of the surveillance society is to engage in sousveillance, or “watching from below.” Individual users can (and do) use NITs to help them engage in monitoring the actions of organizations engaged in surveillance.

Some examples:

  • The Surveillance Camera Players are a New York-based activist/performance group. As an act of protest, they stage performances in front of city surveillance cameras, provide maps and descriptions of camera locations, and try to draw public attention to the use of excessive surveillance.
  • CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering) is an organization that focuses on the ways retail stores invade customers’ privacy through gathering customer data (club cards) and use of RFID technology.
  • Personal video cameras and cell phone cameras give individuals the opportunity to bear witness to events. Particularly when images are digitized for use on the web, the effects can be dramatic. Consider the recent video-phone footage of Sadaam Hussein’s execution. The graphic footage, recorded by witnesses to the execution and distributed on the internet, offered a competing message to the official (silent) footage provided by media outlets and may have had a significant impact on how people reacted to the event.
  • Projects like use NITs to encourage distributed reporting, allowing individuals to act as eyes and ears on news projects.
  • People are using websites, weblogs, and online forums to bear witness against authority figures

New Information Technologies can be (and are) used both for surveillance and for sousveillance. Neither watching from above nor watching from below is inherently good or bad. Both have potential benefits for communities and individuals, and both raise significant concerns about the possibility for invasion of privacy, misuse of information, and related issues. We cannot blame technologies for these problems nor can we expect technology to sort them out for us. We need to do that ourselves.


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