"Inverse Surveillance" -- What We Should Do With All Those Phonecams
By Howard Rheingold, Mon May 03 07:00:00 GMT 2004

Cameraphones could create an opportunity for the public to snoop on the snoops and watch the watchers.


Now that millions of us walk the streets with cameras in our telephones while authorities and theorists freak out about the privacy implications, has anybody stopped to think that our privacy was compromised long ago by the hundreds of surveillance cameras that capture our images without our permission every day?

Has anybody stopped to think that cameras in the hands of citizens cameras capable of sending their images directly from the street to the web might present an opportunity to turn surveillance around, to invert the whole notion that we are watched at all times by invisible police, security guards, and other snoops? In fact, somebody has.

Steve Mann's ideas of citizen "sousveillance" predated the cameraphone phenomena by nearly a decade. He has approached the idea of citizen-based webcam-monitoring from the perspective of wireless wearable computers rather than camera-equipped telephones, but his notion of "inverse surveillance" is a perfect meme for wider consideration at this time, now that all those cameras watching us have been joined by the cameras in our pockets. Can we watch back? Why should we watch back? And how would we do it?

If Steve Mann's name is familiar to you, it's probably because of his reknown as the longtime online cyborg. He started wearing computers and sent his "eyetap" camera images to the Web way back in 1994. His first reference to his activities as a new kind of newsgathering date back to the day in 1995 when he followed a fire truck to a fire and sent the pictures from his head-mounted camera to the Web and that was back when the most widely used browser was still NCSA Mosaic. Mann's commitment to experiencing the world through his Eyetap camera has led him to more than one confrontation with authorities. When security guards tell him that their employers require him to turn off his camera, he tells him that his superiors require him to keep his camera on.

Now a Professor at the University of Toronto, Mann's students at the Toronto Humanistic Intelligence lab have joined him in "cyborglogging." In 2000, Mann and his students streamed images directly to the Web when violence broke out at a demonstration by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty. If you think about it, this kind of journalism is a breakthrough in at least one dimension: whenever police abused their power in past political demonstrations, they made a point of breaking or confiscating cameras. Whether you are a violent demonstrator or an abusive police officer, it doesn't do a lot of good to disguise your misbehavior by trashing a camera if it has already sent images to the Whole Wide World.

I used to think that citizen smart mobs of wearcam-wielding surveillants would have to wait for the era of affordable wearable computing, but I'm beginning to believe that Mann's vision is just the image we need to help us think about what we can DO with a world full of cameraphones. "Surveillance" is French for "watching from above," but Mann's coinage is French for "watching from below." If you think about it, there really is little that citizens can do at this point to prevent others from watching, listening, and tracking us but we are beginning to get the tools to watch the watchers.

Mann notes that surveillance is about authorities watching from on high, but sousveillance is a down-to-earth human's eye view; surveillance cameras are usually automatic devices statically mounted on the ceiling, but sousveillance is human-situated and eye-level; activities are surveilled by authorities but sousveilled by participants; surveillance is secret but sousveillance is public. Yes, the idea sounds crazy at first, but I believe the notion makes sense if you start thinking about these differences.

I'm not the only one who thinks Mann and his colleagues are onto something, On April 12, Mann, together with Dr. Jason Nolan, Senior Fellow, McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology, and Steve Martin, Director of the Professional Development Centre for the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering at the University of Toronto, organized the first International Workshop on Inverse Surveillance in Toronto. You can read notes about the conference on the "Follow-up" link, and join the email list. Next year, maybe it will be a conference. The year after that, perhaps there will be a critical mass of cameraphone sousveillants.

We're being watched. In an age of theft-control, targeted marketing, and ubiquitous anti-terrorism surveillance, there's precious little we can do to stop being observed wherever we go. But we can watch back. What will that do? Maybe we can't know until we try.