Sousveillance: We Watch the Watchmen

Everybody knows what surveillance is: it’s the closed circuit cameras in every store; it’s the security agencies archiving years’ worth of emails and web searches; it’s the Big Brother type of always-on recording of our daily lives by authorities from above. In fact, the term surveillance comes from a French term meaning “to watch from above.”


The dangers and fears about surveillance are well known, so I am only going to cover them briefly. The technology that exists today allows governments to monitor the activities and behaviors of citizens in several ways: through the collection of personal information; intercepting postal and digital transactions; and the use video cameras.

When agents of the state can access the private interactions of citizens, so the theory goes, those citizens will start to police themselves; falling into line and being more obedient. Privacy is put at risk since no one can hide: Big Brother can see us wherever we are. The totalitarian state wins by seeing all dissent and being able to stamp it out in real time, before it becomes a problem.

But the same technology that allows the state and its authorities to watch its citizens, allows citizens to watch back. Smartphones capable of recording and uploading video are everywhere. This is a fact of life in 2014. Those cameras are only going to get more numerous as wearable computer becomes more common. It seems that we are creating a society of transparency, rather than a dystopian panopticon.

Sousveillance, then, is watching from below. When regular people observe and record the events of their lives and of their interactions with the state, the power dynamic of the interaction changes radically. The beauty of sousveillance is that it offers a credible threat of exposure to those misusing power.
If it is possible to film everyone all the time, chances are you are going to get caught in your wrongdoing, whether or not you have any power. The very possibility is going to be enough to dissuade some wrongdoers. So, instead of hiding from Big Brother, everyone gets to see everything: in a society of sousveillance no one hides.

This change in the dynamic of power can be seen in a recent case of alleged police brutality in Denver. David Flores was beaten by police because they suspected him of hiding drugs in his mouth, inside a white sock. When his pregnant girlfriend screamed at them to stop she was beaten as well.
A bystander, Levi Frasier, filmed the interaction on his Samsung tablet until he was noticed by the police. One of the officers shouted, “Camera!” and came over to Frasier demanding the tablet. When he returned it, the video had been deleted. Luckily, the video was already saved to cloud storage and Frasier was able to retrieve it later.

The official police story of this interaction goes like this: Flores was assisted out of his car, but then fell. He was punched repeatedly in the face to keep him from choking on the sock, and he was later taken to hospital. His wife was tripped because she might have been about to kick the officers. The Denver police refuse to comment on the video unless Frasier files a formal complaint. If not for this footage, it would have been the police officers’ word against Frasier and Flores. Now it is easy to prove to a skeptical public when the police and any other state agents have overstepped their bounds.

People in Canada and the United States have the right to film the actions of the police. In 2013 the United States’ courts and the President of the United States each affirmed that American citizens have the right to film any interactions with the state. In Canada courts have held that citizens have the right to film police interactions. While there is no specific Canadian law enshrining this right, there is also no law prohibiting citizens from doing so.

For sousveillance to work as intended it is important for there to be some system set up to protect concerned citizens from the state and corporate interests. The American Civil Liberties Union in Oregon has recently taken a step in that direction, launching its Mobile Justice App at the beginning of November.

The Mobile Justice App is based on a similar one released by the New York Civil Liberties Union in 2012 – Stop and Frisk Watch. The new app is designed to record footage of police interactions and upload the data straight to the ACLU for review. Thus, there is no need to worry about seizure of recording devices by the police.
According to the ACLU website the app has four main features: record, witness, report, and know your rights. First, ‘Record’ allows you to record interactions with the police. ‘Witness’ alerts nearby mobile users that you have been stopped by the police and suggests they might want to record for you. ‘Report’ allows you to transmit a written account to the ACLU alongside your video. Finally, Know your Rights provides an overview of your rights when interacting with police officers.

The app is free, and an iPhone version is to be released in early 2015. As of yet there is not a Canadian equivalent to Mobile Justice, and since the app comes from the Oregon branch of the ACLU, the information is regarding rights in the state of Oregon. Yet, this type of application shows that omnipresent cameras need not lead to an Orwellian panopticon.

It is not surprising that police officers are opposed to citizens being armed with cameras. Or maybe it is: always-on recording helps the police as well. When officers are equipped with body cameras and dashboard cameras, complaints against them drop off precipitously. Police are less likely to engage in improper behaviour, but citizens are also less likely to make unfounded complaints against officers.

For the better part of a century, science fiction authors have warned us about a future where the government is always watching. But advances in video recording and wearable computing have made cameras cheap and widely available to regular people. We may not need to worry so much about Big Brother watching; if we are careful and vigilant, we can usher in an age of transparency where we watch back.