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Sousveillance as a situationist critique of surveillance. This wearable wireless webcam imitates surveillance cameras common in casinos and department stores.

Sousveillance refers both to inverse surveillance, as well as to the recording of an activity from the perspective of a participant in the activity (i.e. personal experience capture).

Inverse surveillance, sometimes known by the neologism "hierarchical sousveillance" ("seeing from below" hierarchically), refers to the recording or monitoring of real or apparent authority figures by others, particularly those who are generally the subject of surveillance. Steve Mann, who coined the term, describes it as "watchful vigilance from underneath". (The term apparently stems from the contrasting French words sur, meaning "on", and sous, meaning "under".)

Inverse surveillance is a type of sousveillance. The more general concept of sousveillance goes beyond just inverse surveillance and the associated 20th Century political "us versus them" framework for citizens to photograph police, shoppers to photograph shopkeepers, or passengers to photograph taxicab drivers. (Rheingold ( notes that it's much like the pedestrian-driver concept, e.g. these are roles that many of us take both sides of, from time-to-time.)

One of the things that brought inverse surveillance to light was the reactions of security guards to electric seeing aids and similar sousveillance practice. It seemed, early on, that the more cameras that were in an establishment, the more paranoid the guards were of an electric seeing aid, such as the EyeTap eyeglasses. Thus it was, through simply wearing of electric seeing aids, as a passive observer, that something strange was discovered, namely that surveillance and sousveillance get along together about as well as matter and anti-matter. This led researchers to explore why the perpetrators of surveillance are so afraid of sousveillance, and thus defined the notion of inverse surveillance as a new and interesting facet of studies in sousveillance.


Personal sousveillance and other concepts related to inverse surveillance

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 cameraphones 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 let us consider a simple parallel example, namely the 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 privilege of a prisoner), we call the recording "surveillance". Audio sousveillance is allowed in most states, and by U.S. Federal law, but audio surveillance is illegal in most states.

"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).

Inverse surveillance as a branch of the more general study of sousveillance

"Hierarchical sousveillance" refers, for example, to citizens photographing police, shoppers photographing shopkeepers, or taxicab passengers photographing cab drivers. So, for example, targeting Poindexter with sousveillance follows this more political narrative. Classy's Kitchen describes sousveillance as "another way to add further introspection to the commons that keeps society open but still makes the world smaller and safer". In this way, we might regard sousveillance as a possible replacement for surveillance (imagine, for example, a law that required cameras to be attached to a human operator --- it's a lot easier to raise objections or concerns to another human than it is to have a heart-to-heart conversation with a lamp post upon which is mounted a surveillance camera).

Beyond the political or breaching of hierarchical structure explored in academia, the more rapidly emerging discourse on sousveillance within industry is the "personal sousveillance", namely the recording of an activity by a participant in the activity. In this sense, the Rodney King video was captured serendipitously by a citizen participating in a civil society. There was no political motive (i.e. the officers who were beating King were not targeted), and the material was captured more serendipitously. As the technologies get smaller and easier to use, the capture, recording, and playback of everyday life gets that much easier. In the limit, when the effort falls low enough, 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. A logfile made in this way, with zero effort, is known as a CyborgLog. 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.

Industrial interest in sousveillance, but not necessarily inverse surveillance

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.

The recent industrial and corporate interest in sousveillance has led to a recent satire of the sousveillance industry. Thus it appears there may be two different "sousveillance factions", one using it as a detournement (in the Situationist tradition) to subvert the Panoptic gaze, while the other using it in a more commercial everyday sense. Of course the two "factions" are not necessarily irreconcileable, in the sense that high-art culture and "low-art" culture are often held to be indistinguishable in the postmodern world. In other words, the co-opting of the subversive nature of sousveillance by industry may well be just another example of art-in-action. Conversely many artists are using the commercialization of sousveillance itself as a social commentary, thus creating a detournement of a detournement of the detournement of surveillance.

Sousveillance activism as a form of inverse surveillance

Since the year 2001, December 24th has been World Sousveillance Day with groups of participants in New York, Toronto, Boston, Florida, Vancouver, Japan, Spain, and the United Kingdom. However, this designated day focuses only on hierarchical sousveillance, whereas there are a number of groups around the world working on combining the two forms of sousveillance. One such group is the group organized by Dr. Stefanos Pantagis, a New York physician, who leads a group of approximately 25 poets, artists, and other hospital workers on experiments in 'glogging. Among the New York 'gloggers are some blind poets making a cyborglog called "shootingblind". There is a certain irony in the blind exploring the all seeing eye of the Panopticon. This has given rise to some interesting debates within the poetry communities in New York, and around the world.

A recent area of research further developed at IWIS was the equilibirum 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 neighbourhood watch. Sometimes this variation of sousveillance ("personal sousveillance") has been referred to as coteveillance or coveillance in the literature.

See also

  • EyeTap
  • The Light of Other Days - A novel set in a world with a complete lack of privacy; anyone can view the activities of anyone or anything else, including looking into the past.

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