Using Sousveillance to Defend the Commons

The familiar storyline of science fiction is the evil dystopia – the totalitarian society of the future in which large, faceless government agencies and corporations use sophisticated technologies to pry into every corner of our lives. The goal is to neutralize dissent and shield the exercise of power from accountability. However necessary at times, surveillance is a crude display of power, a unilateral override of the “consent of the governed."

Now a countervailing storyline is starting to get some traction in real life: the increasing citizen use of technology to “watch from below.” The practice has been called “sousveillance,” a word that comes the French word “sous” (from below) with the word “viller” (to watch). Instead of Big Brother using a panopticon of surveillance to exercise total, unquestioned control, the commoners are using cheap, portable technologies to monitor and publicize the behavior of Power. The commons is sprouting its own eyes – and its own means of self-defense, political organizing and reclamation of democracy.

The concept of sousveillance has been around since at least 1998, when Steve Mann, a professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Toronto, Canada, coined the term. The term has gained greater currency over the past ten years as the cell-phone camera, digital tape recorder, handheld video camera and many other mobile devices have become ubiquitous. The spread of cheap communications technologies is changing the power equation between the surveillers and ordinary citizens.

Sousveillance is commonly directed against police as a way to document their (anticipated) abuses. The classic example is the amateur video footage of LA policemen brutalizing Rodney King in 1991. Now that lightweight cameras are everywhere and footage can easily be posted on YouTube and other websites, sousveillance videos have documented police abuse in Malaysia, gay-bashing in Latvia and union-busting in Zimbabwe, as  has taken note of “FitWatch” – “the tactic of filming the Met Police Forward Intelligence Teams and sharing photos, badge numbers and names.” In the United States and Canada, there is a network of volunteer organizations called Copwatch that monitor the police and host a user-generated database of police misbehavior.

Sousveillance is not just about watching the police. The Web site invites women to post photos of any man who tries to harass them. In Sierra Leone and Ghana, people used mobile phones to monitor for irregularities and intimidation during elections in 2007.

Politicians are increasingly monitored by citizen-videos, a practice that allows citizens to bypass the mainstream press and present their own unvarnished accounts of campaign activities. The most famous example may be the videotape of George Allen, the GOP candidate for Senate in 2004, who had the bad judgment to utter an ethnic slur, maccaca. The sousveillance video arguably tipped the election in favor of Allen’s opponent, James Webb. The British newspaper, The Guardian, once enlisted its readers to help take photos of then-Prime Minister Tony Blair at a time when the Labour Party was trying to insulate him from press coverage.

The fascinating thing about sousveillance is how people with power – whether policemen, politicians or corporate officials – get supremely agitated at the idea that anyone would try to photograph, tape or videotape them. They find sousveillance quite threatening. For good reason: their behaviors can now be held to public account. The very possibility that official behaviors might be documented and publicized is unsettling to those who have previously enjoyed an unchallenged right of top-down surveillance against us.

A British website, Ideal Government,, recognizes the need for police to protect ordinary citizens from crime and anti-social behavior, but goes on to say:

Wouldn’t it be better if….the police accepted or were taught that transparency is mutual; that they should be prepared to accept it if they are conducting themselves correctly; that the police vs. demonstrators encounter was less us v them against a Kafkaesque legal background that no-one understands and more a case of both police and demonstrators conforming to laws that all understand and generally respect.

The equalization of power relationships is not the only good thing to flow from sousveillance. It also opens up the possibility of a more community-based management and sanctioning of free-riders, which are familiar aspects of the classic commons paradigm. (See an excellent paper on sousveillance by Steve Mann, Jason Nolan and Barry Wellman, all professors at the University of Toronto.)

An excellent Wikipedia entry notes that an equilibrium between surveillance and sousveillance may have positive effects. “Equiveillance theory” argues that sousveillance may reduce or eliminate 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” by Mann, Nolan and Wellman.

I must admit my discomfort at the possibility that all public acts might be subject to recording, whether from the top or down, not to mention private acts. This is not necessarily an advance for humanity. Raw evidence is not necessarily reliable evidence, and one cannot discount the risk of hoaxes.

But as a way to hold Power accountable at a time when Power has aggressively fortified itself against accountability through new concentrations of wealth, legal manipulations, advanced technologies and political alliances, sousveillance does serve as a provisional, imperfect antidote.

It is customary for innovations that emerge from the commons to be regarded as aberrant epiphenomena before they are finally named and publicly recognized by mainstream authorities (the surveillers), at which point the practices are in fact even more pervasive than suspected. For me, this about sums up the status of sousveillance. It is more widespread than we may imagine. Although I harbor some misgivings, it is liberating to realize that the simple act of transparency – a tactic pioneered by the Freedom of Information Act and open-meetings laws of the 1970s — can be so transformative. Except that now, we don’t need no stinkin’ lawyers or press agents. Sousveillance is decentralized, self-enacting and remarkably powerful.