Sousveillance

Sousveillance [soo-vay-lance] refers to the recording of an activity by a participant in the activity typically by way of small wearable or portable personal technologies. Sousveillance has also been described as ‘inverse surveillance’ because the term stems from the contrasting French words ‘sur,’ meaning ‘above,’ and ‘sous,’ meaning ‘below,’ i.e. ‘surveillance’ denotes the ‘eye-in-the-sky’ watching from above, whereas ‘sousveillance’ denotes bringing the camera or other means of observation down to human level, either physically (mounting cameras on people rather than on buildings), or hierarchically (ordinary people doing the watching, rather than higher authorities or architectures doing the watching).

While surveillance and sousveillance both generally refer to visual monitoring (i.e. ‘veiller’ being ‘to watch’), the terms also denote other forms of monitoring such as audio surveillance or sousveillance. In the audio sense (e.g. recording of phone conversations) sousveillance is referred to as ‘one party consent.’

Inverse surveillance is a subset of sousveillance with a particular emphasis on the ‘watchful vigilance from underneath’ and a form of surveillance inquiry or legal protection involving the recording, monitoring, study, or analysis of surveillance systems, proponents of surveillance, and possibly also recordings of authority figures and their actions. Inverse surveillance is typically an activity undertaken by those who are generally the subject of surveillance, and may thus be thought of as a form of ethnography or ethnomethodology study (i.e. an analysis of the surveilled from the perspective of a participant in a society under surveillance).

Sousveillance typically involves community-based recording from first person perspectives, without necessarily involving any specific political agenda, whereas inverse-surveillance is a form of sousveillance that is typically directed at, or used to collect data to analyze or study, surveillance or its proponents (e.g., the actions of police at a protest rally).

One of the things that brought inverse surveillance to light was the reactions of security guards to electric seeing aids and similar sousveillance practices. It seemed, early on, that the more cameras that were in an establishment, the more the guards disliked the use of an electric seeing aid, such as the EyeTap eyeglasses. It was through simply wearing electric seeing aids, as a passive observer, that it was discovered that surveillance and sousveillance can cause conflict and sometimes confrontation. This led some researchers to explore why the perpetuators of surveillance are suspicious of sousveillance, and thus defined the notion of inverse surveillance as a new and interesting facet of studies in sousveillance.

The Office of Community Sousveillance is currently engaged in ‘policing the police’ and a number of ‘Sousveillance Officers’ monitor police conduct and publish reports on police (mis)conduct. Since 2001, December 24 has been World Sousveillance Day with groups of participants in New York, Toronto, Boston, Florida, Vancouver, Japan, Spain and the United Kingdom.

A recent area of research further developed at IWIS was the equilibrium between surveillance and sousveillance. Current ‘equiveillance theory’ holds that sousveillance, to some extent, often reduces or eliminates the need for surveillance. In this sense it is possible to replace the Panoptic God’s eye view of surveillance with a more community-building ubiquitous personal experience capture. Crimes, for example, might then be solved by way of collaboration among the citizenry rather than through the watching over the citizenry from above. But it is not so black-and-white as this dichotomy. Rather, there is a simple shift in the equiveillant point, as, for example, more camera phones enter widespread use, we might be able, as a society, to be more self-reliant, on our own communities to keep an electronic neighborhood watch. This variation of sousveillance (‘personal sousveillance’) has been referred to as ‘coveillance.’

Personal sousveillance is the art, science, and technology of personal experience capture, processing, storage, retrieval, and transmission, such as lifelong audiovisual recording by way of cybernetic prosthetics, such as seeing-aids, visual memory aids, and the like. Even today’s personal sousveillance technologies like camera phones and weblogs tend to build a sense of community, in contrast to surveillance that some have said is corrosive to community.

The legal, ethical, and policy issues surrounding personal sousveillance are largely yet to be explored, but there are close parallels to the social and legal norms surrounding recording of telephone conversations. When one or more parties to the conversation record it, we call that sousveillance, whereas when the conversation is recorded by a person who is not a party to the conversation (such as a prison guard violating a client-lawyer relationship), we call the recording ‘surveillance.’

‘Targeted sousveillance’ refers to sousveillance of a specific individual by one or more other individuals. Usually the targeted individual is a representative or proponent of surveillance, so targeted sousveillance is often Inverse Surveillance (hierarchical sousveillance). ‘Hierarchical sousveillance’ refers, for example, to citizens photographing police, shoppers photographing shopkeepers, or taxicab passengers photographing cab drivers. So, for example, targeting former White House security official Admiral John Poindexter with sousveillance follows this more political narrative.

As the technologies get smaller and easier to use, the capture, recording, and playback of everyday life gets that much easier. For example, David Ollila, a manufacturer of video camera equipment, was trapped for four hours aboard a Comair plane at JFK Airport in New York City. When he filmed an interview with the pilot about the situation, the pilot called the police who removed Ollila for questioning and removed everyone from the plane.

Personal experience capture can be done without conscious thought or effort, wherein the person capturing the information becomes a ‘cyborg’ in the Manfred Clynes sense. The ‘Sensecam’ works this way, as does Gordon Bell’s MyLifeBits project at Microsoft. A logfile made in this way, with zero effort, is known as a CyborgLog, or glog. The most widespread sousveillance has spread without conscious design. Camera phones, digital cameras and digital video cameras have proliferated, affording the opportunity of easy, unobtrusive documentation using snapshots, videos and audio. The simplicity of a wearable camera phone makes cyborglogging possible simply by walking around in ordinary day-to-day life. Other devices such as a Holter heart monitor can add additional tracks to an audiovisual cyborglog that make the ‘glog useful for personal safety and health monitoring.

Recording a situation is only part of the sousveillance process. Communicating is also important. Video-sharing sites such as YouTube and photo-sharing sites such as Flickr play a vital role. For example, police agents provocateur were quickly revealed on YouTube when they infiltrated a demonstration in Montebello, Quebec, against the leaders of Canada, Mexico and the United States (August 2007). When the head of the Quebec police publicly stated that there was no police presence, a sousveillance video showed him to be wrong. When he revised his statement to say that the police provocateurs were peaceful observers, the same video showed them to be masked, wearing police boots, and in one case holding a rock.

Alibi sousveillance is a form of sousveillance activity aimed at generating an alibi as evidence to defend against allegations of wrongdoing. Many radio operators keep a complete recording of everything they transmit, so that they can use it to defend against allegations that they may have said something on-air that is inappropriate. More recently, Hasan Elahi, a professor from Rutgers University, has produced a sousveillance for his entire life after being detained at an airport because he shares the same name as a person on the US terrorist watchlist. Some of the sousveillance activities include using his cell phone as a tracking device and publically posting debit card and other transactions that document his actions.

The dissemination of first hand accounts and videos, both live and pre-recorded, of state reactions to protests in Tunisia and Egypt in January 2011 served to raise visibility of the actions of the states, and may have spurred growth in the protests. The impact was significant enough that after initial attempts to block specific sites, Egypt ultimately shut down all internet access for a period. Notably, the primary recording device in these revolutions was the mobile phone. In this context, inverse surveillance was used in complement to social networks.

Microsoft is also exploring cyborglogs, as are Hewlett Packard, Nokia, and many others. Joi Ito’s use of the camera phone approaches the idea of a cyborglog, in the sense that his images are sent often, and with little conscious thought or effort. Ito is part of the Program Committee for the International Conference on Sousveillance, along with the attendees of the International Workshop on Inverse Surveillance. Social software such as Facebook and MySpace aid surveillance by encouraging people to publish their interests and their friendship networks. They also aid sousveillance by making this information available to peer networks as well as to the authorities.

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