Welcome to part three in our series on the various veillances that are commonplace today and which you should be aware of, click the links below to read about the others in the series:
This article is about the one that you do, the one that’s in your hands, and the one that’s becoming increasingly important – sousveillance. Chances are you engage in sousveillance regularly, even daily, so lets dive in.
What is it?
The term was coined by Steve Mann and is accepted as “the recording of an activity by a participant in that activity using a small wearable or portable personal device” (1). The French word ‘sur’ means ‘above’ to identify ‘surveillance’ as a ‘watching from above’ concept. The French word ‘sous’ though means ‘below’ helping distinguish sousveillance from surveillance as bringing the camera down to human or eye level (1). The footage captured by airport security cameras would therefore be surveillance and the footage captured by you recording something at an airport using your mobile phone would be sousveillance. The primary focus of sousveillance is to capture visual and/or audio format data ,just like surveillance, but it’s the devices used and ownership of those devices which differentiates sousveillance from surveillance. Typical devices used would include mobile phones, tablets, dashcams, and body cameras such as a ‘GoPro’.
How it works & what it’s used for
How sousveillance works is easy to imagine from the definition above so let’s focus on what it is used for. Its core justification is that it can be used by ordinary citizens to monitor politicians, government heads, authority figures, or shed light on social issues and injustices. Topically the current prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement is thanks to sousveillance by ordinary citizens. The death of George Floyd was captured on a portable personal device (mobile phone recording) by a member of the public. This is a clear example of sousveillance with some of the other benefits of sousveillance being:
- Shed light on abuses of power, corruption, police brutality, bribery and other forms of injustice or misuse of power imbalances.
- It can help prevent crime, capture perpetrators, prove/disprove alibis, become evidence etc.
- It can be considered a protection of democratic societies in that surveillance-only societies are more likely to lean toward or become totalitarian. Those societies in turn don’t generally allow sousveillance by the masses (we can all think of a few countries which fit into this category, can’t we?).
There is however an Achilles’ heel with all of these flagged benefits and that flaw relates to distribution of content. For sousveillance to be effective, the content in question needs to be distributed on a mass scale and be viewed by millions of people whose outrage becomes the catalyst for change. The video of George Floyd’s death, for example, was published on all major social media platforms and shared exponentially, leading to that outrange which opened up the door for worldwide protests demanding change. However, the potential flaw arises from the risk in having to rely on this process taking place for sousveillance to be effective and true to its purpose as per the bullet points above. Being reliant on platforms which share interests with governments, which can control visibility of content through algorithms, and which are currently in the spotlight regarding censorship (Donald Trump was just suspended from Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram as we write this) is a risk to its effectiveness.
Big Tech is one player which can suppress the spread of sousveillance content and the government is another. A good example of this is sousveillance being credited as a catalyst of the Arab Spring uprisings which helped topple some autocratic regimes and bring about change in many countries in the region. Sousveillance did its job and vindicated its intended use as more than just romanticised libertarian ideals. However, the repressive governments have since moved to protect against future uprisings and dissent with more online censorship, internet blackouts, troll armies and cyber monitoring. Since then, some of the places around the world most in need of revolt don’t have a vehicle to draw upon the power of sousveillance with. Big Tech and Big Government can really dampen one of the idealistic virtues of sousveillance – holding the powerful accountable.
Topical examples of Sousveillance in action and censorship of it
Suppression in India
In India there is currently a Farmers’ Protest growing in Delhi with many Indian farmers going on hunger strikes to protest new agricultural laws which they say benefit private buyers at the expensive of local producers. Whilst the protests have been somewhat peaceful compared to others we’ve seen around the world in recent times, there have been clashes between protesters and police. India’s interior ministry took the controversial step of suspending internet services at three main areas the protests are occurring in Delhi.
The government has, predictably, justified this as being ‘in the interest of public safety’ – regular readers of Privacy Rightfully will know this is typically the go-to reasoning for any action or policy that impedes on either privacy or traditional ideals of freedom or liberty. Protesters benefit greatly from sousveillance regarding getting their message out and gathering more support. India’s government has limited the power of sousveillance by the people with their internet shut down, which they’ve also used in 2019 in the Kashmir region. In 2019 India recorded the highest levels of internet shutdowns of any country in the world.
Protests in France
Moving over to France there are protests regarding a proposed amendment to current legislation (Article 24) which would make it an offence to record the face or identity of any police officer on duty. The French government is reasoning that it needs to take steps to protect police officers from online calls for violence. Similar to the George Floyd case in the United States, racism was part of the impetus for the protests when footage was released of police beating a black music producer. Curiously the beating itself was caught on CCTV (surveillance not sousveillance) whilst the amendment to the law would aim to restrict sousveillance.
The amendment would mean the power of sousveillance would be deteriorated especially in its primary goal of keeping those in power or authority accountable for their actions. The government and those supporting the bill highlight police offers could be subject to doxing as trail by social media tends to have an explicit intent to harm. This point is of course valid, we saw how quickly the residential addresses of the police officers involved in the George Floyd case were found and made public leading to protests out the front of their houses. However, we would argue that sousveillance has the power to do significantly more good for society than harm. This criticism is the same that privacy advocates such as us receive when it is said that our work helps criminals, paedophiles, or terrorists better cover their tracks or evade justice. There is truth to that however, we firmly believe in the overwhelming benefits that the majority law-abiding citizens get in increasing their privacy and online security far outweighs the minority of outlaws using the same tools and teachings for bad. The benefits are a significant net positive compared when comparing to potential flaws or issues.
Both examples in India and France, happening now in 2021, highlight democratic governments borrowing some of the methods used by autocratic governments to reduce sousveillance by their citizens.
Personal use of Sousveillance
What’s been discussed so far has been focused how sousveillance can impact society as whole, however what benefits does it provide the individual? Given sousveillance is at play at eyelevel the benefits (and impacts discussed later) are more about a net gain to you, personally / individually. To put it bluntly sousveillance content that isn’t of a crime or abuse of power or otherwise anything to spark mass outrage is usually of no interest to anyone else but you.
A good example of sousveillance benefiting an individual is the rise of ‘dashcams’ – small cameras mounted to the dashboard or windscreen of a car to record what’s in front and/or what’s behind. This is a typical sousveillance device that benefits an individual in that it captures footage to protect that person from injustice. The fundamental reason for their growing use is to support insurance claims given there are usually disputes regarding who is at fault. Dashcams became prominent in countries like Russia due to a high accident rate (one of the highest in the world), prominence of insurance fraud, and corruption of authorities. Other countries with narrow roads, high crime rates or poor road infrastructure tend to have high uptakes of dashcam use as well.
Impact to privacy (and security!)
The biggest issue with sousveillance is it adds to the surveillance society under the guise of those with less power holding those with more power accountable (or at least having the tools to). A habit currently forming is we tend to record everything using the cameras on our mobile phones, which in themselves are very advanced and clear, even under maximum zoom. This creates an opportunity for the establishment of a citizen version of a police state leading to doxing or Renrou Sousou. The former we’ve written about here and the latter translates roughly to ‘human flesh search’ and is prominent in China. Renrou Sousou involves citizens taking justice into their own hands using data or sousveillance media of people found online with the intent of naming and shaming them for certain actions (similar to the French governments motive for the amended laws). Prosecution by the mob is rife in our cancel culture societies and thanks to sousveillance one need only make an ill placed joke or wear a culturally insensitive costume to fall victim. You may be recorded on video at a party saying something you don’t mean because you’re drunk, and it can come back and bite you later in life. Western society is evolving and progressing every day regarding which words are inappropriate or insensitive so it may not even be the message you speak but rather the selection of words you use.
The impact to your privacy is also flagged in that you may be unaware you are being recorded and how much you form in the background of someone else’s recordings which can later be repurposed. Images of large public gatherings such as sporting events and concerts highlights how prone people are to record anything of interest or excitement on their phone (basically engage in sousveillance). Have you ever re-watched a concert recorded on a mobile phone? Awful, isn’t it? Well, why do we do it? We’re not too sure but it’s a constant creation of more and more sousveillance.
Other privacy issues with sousveillance relate to permission, consent, use, ownership and storage of this type of data. Generally, we are aware, grant access and expect surveillance and so we don’t need to grant explicit consent. We know we are under constant surveillance at an airport, CCTV cameras in public places are often disclosed with a sign mounted to the pole a camera is attached to. Laws relating to sousveillance are catching up too from the proposed French amendment discussed earlier through to dashcam footage. Some countries outlaw dashcam use altogether while others give conditions on what can or can’t be recorded and what consent is required. For example, if you put your car in for a service you may not know that you have to disclose the presence of a dashcam to the shop / mechanic in some countries. There are also growing issues in the area of uploading dashcam footage to social media.
We have accepted a certain level of ‘big brother’ in our lives, but we often forget about ‘little brother’ – probably because we are all ‘little brother’ to an extent. We all know (and many of us are) those people who don’t like their photos taken generally, or having our photos posted to public domains such as social media sites specifically. It would seem society has detached from the idea that what you see with your eyes is not the same as what you record. Seeing someone buying a ham sandwich though, is very different to recording video of someone buying a ham sandwich. We tend to think the recording something is just a safety net for our own memory to avoid forgetting something, however it’s more like making a photocopy of something in digital form which has the potential to last forever – unlike our memories.
What you can do to reduce your exposure
Unfortunately, there isn’t too much you can do to reduce your exposure to sousveillance in public places in a society where everyone around you can hold a mobile phone camera and record you in the background. We would suggest reading our article Protesting with Privacy at Heart which contains some good tips to reduce your identifiability in public places. These tips were written for public protests but can easily be applied to other public places such as concerts, sporting events, shopping centres, etc. The only other advice is to be very conscious of your temper, reaction and behaviour when you notice someone pointing a mobile phone at you and recording.
Situations where you may be the innocent party or unaware of the offense you are causing can be turned against you out of context or at a future time when societal standards progress. Wearing a Ninja or American Indian costume or black face to a party didn’t land anyone into trouble when I was born. Today the former is cultural appropriation, the latter is racist, and both will ruin your career, reputation, relationships, and so forth as they are deemed completely unacceptable today. What is considered acceptable today may not be tomorrow, awareness and consciousness of that fact coupled with the knowledge that sousveillance is growing exponentially is your ally in risk reduction and behaviour modification. Always think twice.
Whilst the primary use of sousveillance is for the benefit of ordinary citizens, collectively as a society and individually, they too can find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Any time you take part in sousveillance or set up a sousveillance device you need to ensure you are on the right side of the law, check your local laws regarding:
- Legal status of a device (such as dashcams) where you live, and any limitations attached.
- Recording in certain places (such as passport control at airports)
- Recording at certain targets (such as police officers if the French amendment passes)
- Gaining consent (using dashcams as an example – passengers if you’re a rideshare driver or a mechanic servicing your car)
- Mounting in a permissible area (dashcams which obstruct the drivers view can lead to a fine or worse causing an accident)
Sousveillance by virtue of being ‘by the people for the people’ is inherently a good thing or at least a net positive in our view. We highlighted some examples of governments around the world trying to supress, outlaw, or impair the spread and power of sousveillance. These weren’t the usual suspects one would expect in such examples but rather democratic countries! Given the exponential growth of surveillance and dataveillance by governments and by private and public institutions, it’s good that those being monitored at so many levels have some capacity to do the same and try ‘keep the bastards honest’. However, blindly jumping on the sousveillance train isn’t the best use of it.
- In society: to capture injustice, crime, corruption, and abuses of power
- Personally: to protect yourself from false accusations, potential injustices, and vindicate your side of the story in serious events such as car accidents
However, it may not be the wisest move to use sousveillance:
- To take the law into your own hands, for malicious reasons, to hurt or negatively impact someone you don’t like, for blackmail, etc
- To break existing privacy laws or impede the privacy someone else may expect to have.
Stay tuned for our next article and conclusion to the series on Uberveillance.
(1) Definition of Sousveillance: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sousveillance linked from: Monahan, Torin (2006). Surveillance And Security: Technological Politics And Power In Everday Life, page 158.
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