Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project

"One of the fundamental contrasts between free democratic societies and totalitarian systems is that the totalitarian government [or other totalitarian organization] relies on secrecy for the regime but high surveillance and disclosure for all other groups, whereas in the civic culture of liberal democracy, the position is approximately the reverse." -- Professor Geoffrey de Q Walker, now dean of law at Queensland University in Australia.

Over the past two decades, surveillance has permeated society in ways that only Orwell could have imagined. The increasingly low costs of electronics and data storage coupled with scare tactics like terrorism have given governments worldwide the green light to put public and private spaces under their eye. During 2008 alone, Sprint gave location data of their users over to law enforcement a total of eight million times.  The surveillance infrastructure is owned and controlled primarily by those with political and class privilege. This creates a situation where people can be watched but cannot "watch the watchers". As a result, the accountability of police, politicians, and other authority figures decreases.


In any political / social context, from a liberal democracy to an authoritarian government. Sousveillance in a democratiic (or quasi-democratic) country is particularly important in times of overzealous governmental secrecy, propensity towards surveillance, and increasing political repression.


"Steve Mann presents the notion of sousveillance as a method for the public to monitor the establishment and provide a new level of transparency. This has been the role of the press, but with its strong orientation toward positive feedback, the media has tended to focus on less relevant issues, which get an inordinate amount of attention. One such example was the media's fascination with Gennifer Flowers and her claim that she had had an affair with President Clinton." -- From Joichi Ito's discussion of Emergent Democracy. One of the first thing that George W. Bush did when he became president of the US was to place his father's writings (which by law were supposed to be made public) into secrecy.

We live in an age where ever-increasing portions of the population have turned to social networking where they divulge the most personal and private details of their life to their friends, their co-workers, and most anybody who cares to look. Facebook, Google, and other advertising giants track every website a person goes to with an ad or a 'like' button on it. People scan their loyalty cards at grocery stories and give their entire purchase history, name, number, and address to the highest bidder in exchange for a few dollars off their bill. Those who run their surveillance infrastructure have not been blind to this and have begun investing significant resources into monitoring social networking sites and rich sources of user-generated information.

No matter where one turns, they can find information on their fellow citizen that they would rather not have revealed. Security cameras, credit cards, and RFID-enabled identification cards track our every movement. Normal activities which one might not want the world to know about like visits to the pharmacy, an alleyway make-out session, and a visit to Planned Parenthood all become a spectacle for those on the other end of the camera to enjoy.

While some of the information garnered by dragnet surveillance is available to the public or those of small financial stature, most of it is locked in databases and storage systems run by the rich and powerful. In 2005, it was revealed that for the past five years the National Security Agency had been collecting wholesale internet traffic, call records, and other private information from millions of Americans without warrants, subpoenas, or any judicial oversight. In a 2001 report, the European Union validated a theory that the United States, in conjunction with allies such as the UK, operated a global surveillance network called ECHELON which could intercept most worldwide communications. It is said that through publicly and privately operated surveillance cameras, the average Londoner is photographed 300 times per day. The majority of people are watched with intense scrutiny throughout the entirety of their lives while the minority of people who commit the biggest crimes sit behind closed doors where they can execute their plans for financial and social dominance in privacy and without interruption. People no longer seem to be surprised to hear that the dash-cam of a police car was mysteriously off when the officer flew off the handle or that the video from a jail beating is missing.

How can we change this dynamic? How can surveillance systems actually be used for widespread social accountability instead of preserving the interests of those who own them?

Study after study shows that surveillance does not actually reduce crime or make the average person safer and a steady stream of news stories show that surveillance abilities are used improperly by those who have them. A study conducted by Hull University showed that one in ten women were targeted for 'voyeuristic' reasons by male camera operators. Norris, C. and Armstrong, G. "The unforgiving Eye: CCTV surveillance in public space" Centre for Criminology and Criminal Justice, Hull University, 1997. Seeing this, the simple solution seems to be to outlaw surveillance equipment entirely or create rules to hold its owners accountable. To some extent, this has already been done. The government is barred from using surveillance and search powers without obtaining necessary legal justification and corporations have similar but less stringent limitations. Nonetheless and unsuprisingly, these rules have not stopped widespread abuse as those who own surveillance systems are often the same ones who fare better in courts and the media due to societal privilege.


People must have the means to watch the watchers. Steve Mann's term "sousveillance" captures this idea. As the age of surveillance is here to stay (at least until we live in a world where people's privacy is put above the sanctity of property), there must be a way to change the dynamic of surveillance. Sousveillance requires tools which are easy for laypeople to use, a network for communicating among those who use them, and a method for spreading information that comes from sousveillance. There are many some tools such as Freedom of Information Laws, cell-phone cameras, and independent media networks which help facilitate sousveillance but there are not nearly enough and they are not as widely adopted as necessary. People must make these tools easier to use, put them into the hands of more people, and make their use ubiquitous enough to truly scare those who they are meant to keep an eye on.

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