Sousveillance, not just surveillance,
in response to terrorism

By Steve Mann

2002 March 1.

Appears in Metal and Flesh, Volume 6, No. 1


War of the Wires

When we plug our toaster, kettle, and frying pan into the same electrical circuit, there is a good chance that a sacrificial suicide electrical element, called a "fuse'' will blow itself up. The fuse will sacrifice itself in order to disrupt the "business as usual'' in our kitchen.

This will cause a minor but annoying disruption to our Home(land) security. It is then, that we realize how vulnerable we are without essential services like electricity, lighting, heat, and our alarm system or other security systems.

Therefore we call in our Home(land) Defense Initiative Response Team (or call upon ourselves to take the laws of electricity into our own hands) to seize the blown-up fuse, and install our own electrical dictator in its place.

The rest of the house is quite foreign to the fusebox, and the fuses know very little about what goes on in the world beyond the confines of the basement. With bad foreign electrical policy, the fuses continue to blow themselves up in order to disrupt our essential services. The casualties continue to grow. In the bathroom, you cut your face because your electric shaver cuts out mid-strike into your beard. To add insult to injury, these suicide "fusitives'' blow themselves up and shut down your computer at the very moment when you're trying to play some loud music to mask the sounds of all the family members blow-drying their hair at the same time in the morning. Suddenly the house is silent, and everyone has to go out into the cold with wet hair, while you stay home and try to recover the data that was lost from the now corrupt hard drive in your computer.

In your anger, you call in the Electrical Guard. Something has to be done, and somebody is going to pay for this. We cannot simply allow "fusitives'' to terrorize us and our children who are now exhibiting flulike symptoms after going out into the cold winter morning with wet hair.

Now is the time to open up our wallets and install some reinforcements into the fusebox. For only a few pennies, we can declare martial law on the fusebox, and install our copper pennywise preventatives. Now with the basement safely barricaded behind the Copper Curtain, there can be no more copper-unrest or dissent, so the higher-ups (e.g. those on the upper floors) may begin to feel safe and secure. Now everyone in the family can run their blow dryers together every morning, and everyone feels healthier with dry hair on those cold winter mornings. The daily disruptions have come to an end, at last.

All's well until the wiring in our house becomes a hotbed of electrical unrest. Without the daily civil unrest from the fusebox, the family is no longer reminded of its terrible foreign electrical policy. Now you're frying up bacon and eggs, boiling your kettle, and making your toast, while everyone else in the house is blow-drying their hair at the same time. You have long since forgotten to unplug the kettle before you press down the lever on the toaster. Why should you unplug the kettle just to please those fusitives in the basement dungeons? You are the one in high-command, and you haven't been down into the basement for almost a year now. That's why you can't see the smoke down in the basement, coming from the electrical hotbed of wiring unrest. You don't realize that your house is a political tinderbox of protest, until you smell smoke coming from the heating ducts. The wiring is waging a war, and the casualties are great in number, as the tinderbox is engulfed in flames.

With your increased "security'' the unrest happens less frequently, but is more catastrophic when it finally does happen.


The Political Pressurecooker

When homeland security replaces the freedom to scrutinize foreign policy, we have a political pressure cooker. As we clamp the lid down tighter and tighter, we can turn up the temperature more before things start to boil over. And we DO turn up the temperature, simply because we can.

With greater security, the disruptions become less frequent but more severe. Rather than merely a few drops dripping onto the stove continuously, we have the whole thing blow up but only occasionally.


Newtonian Politics

Civil unrest, riots, and terrorism appear to arise from an imbalance of power.

Of course, lumping terrorism together with civil unrest may at first seem strange, but we live in strange times in which many governments are using the term "terrorism'' to quiet nearly any expression of dissenting opinion. Thus why bother trying to distinguish between "bad foreign policy'' and "terrorism'' when the line between domestic and foreign terrorism is so quickly being blurred? (Note, for example, terminology like "domestic preparedness'' --- preparedness against what?) In fact, as governments try to broaden their scope of what they consider to be "terrorism'' and include peaceful protests and nearly all manner of civil unrest in their definition of "terrorism'', one wonders if this broadened scope is beginning to include the government's own activities as "terrorism''. Chomsky hints at this notion (e.g. one's own government and corporations as terrorists) through his terminology "wholesale terrorism'' versus "retail terrorism''. In his view, and the view of many others, "it takes two to tango'', e.g. it takes two to terrorize (each other). Indeed the so-called "war on terrorism'' suggests that terrorism is a new kind of war, and we know that it takes at least two sides to fight a war (against each other). And a war is not a pleasant or collegial thing to wage.

Every political force has an approximately equal and opposite political force. If there is an imbalance of force, we will simply ``increase'' our foreign policy until we meet a "balance'' of "power''. We'll simply keep plugging in more toasters, kettles, and hair dryers, simply because we can. Only when we meet that equilibrium point, where we are reminded of our wrongdoing, will we back down and start unplugging things.

A true balance of power arises when a plurality of diversely independent groups (nations, beliefs, theories, philosophies, or other collectives) have approximately equal power, and sustain a plurality of viewpoints.

In a fit of desperation, arising from a disastrous imbalance, an oppressed party may be willing to go to more drastic measures to reach further out, to restore balance. Such balance is like a fulcrum in which the mild-mannered heavyweight achieves balance with a lightweight extremist group. Suppression of peaceful protest marches will free-up the streets for more utilitarian uses, but will give way to a louder protest from a more vocal minority. Suppression of this vocal minority to keep the streets quiet will give rise to a temporary illusion of peace and quiet, followed by more catostrophic uprisings.

Killing off (e.g. by bombing, military strikes, or the like) the extremist groups that arise (domestic and abroad --- it's getting harder to make a distinction) might provide some temporary security, but will also result in further increases in oppression. This oppression may take the form of an oppressive foreign policy, or simply the result of globalization in which the boundary between "domestic'' and "foreign'' is eradicated.

The further increases in oppression arise because of the lack of balance. Without peaceful marches in the street to disrupt the "business as usual'', there is no reminder of our excessive consumption. Without an equal and opposite force, the balance swings further out from the center of the fulcrum and keeps going until it meets another equal and opposite force. Thus terrorism is merely a symptom of a life out of balance. Accordingly, totalitarianism and increased surveillance is not a suitable recipe for prevention of terrorism. Quite the opposite, totalitarianism (and security, surveillance, etc.) may actually be the cause of, rather than the cure for, terrorism.

When there is a balance of power among a plurality of viewpoints and a diversity of ideology, there seems to be little unrest. But when there is imbalance, there seems to be unrest, which can escalate to riots, and even violent terrorism, when the system is out of balance. Thus the smaller restoring forces are pushed further from the center (possibly as far as self-destruction) to balance the fulcrum.

Terrorism, therefore, does not happen in a vacuum, but, rather, is often a response to our life-out-of-balance.


Secrecy, not privacy, may be the true cause of terrorism

"many people feel that the security of Big Brother is another form of terror.''


Message 9/4945  From Gary Morton                    Dec 08, 01 09:56:40 PM -0500
To: " 
Subject: Protest Begins Against Canada's Severe Anti Terrorist Legislation

It has often been said that the true causes of terrorism are oppression, bad foreign policy, and secrecy, rather than privacy. In fact some have even gone so far as to say that they've felt more frightened of the soldiers of their own armed forces than of the so-called "terrorists'', and many have gone as far as referring to their own "Big Brother'' governments or security forces as the true source of terror(ism).

Thus it is worth understanding this secrecy-rather-than-privacy aspect of terrorism. Secret organizations often run open-loop, without the normal feedback mechanisms that provide important checks and balances. Feedback is the simple process of observability-controllability like we find in a home thermostat. When the homeland gets too hot, the thermostat provides the checks and balances needed to shut off the furnace. But the secret burners under the political pressure cookers have no thermostat --- nothing to keep them in a state of equilibrium or balance. Rather than short-cycling on and off regularly, they run for longer and longer but more drastic cycles called "revolutions'' or other more major forms of unrest, disaster, or carnage. As we break down the fuseboxes and other safety features between the various branches of government, and as we remove the safety checks and balances between governments and corporations, everything appears to be the same as (or better than) it was before, but we are setting ourselves up for even greater disaster. By implementing military tribunals, we're enabling the possibility of "kangaroo courts'' for political prisoners and other dissidents. As we build massive quarantine camps on our airforce bases, allegedly to contain outbreaks of bioterror (e.g. smallpox, plague, etc.), we're failing to install fuses that might protect from the rounding up of dissidents. As we wire the planet for surveillance, we're wiring it without fuses.

It is not privacy that is the cause of the problem. It is not the unphotographed, unfingerprinted, unsurveilled citizens who are to blame, but, rather, it is the larger pressure cooking machinery that needs to be questioned.

Blaming terrorism on individual citizens is like blaming the blown up boiler on the first few molecules of steam that escape through the first rupture in the pressure cooker.

Instead of putting each molecule under surveillance to see which are the first to "step out of line'' through a hole blown in the side of the boiler, we should really be looking at the secret stove that operates witout scrutiny.


Wiring the world without fuses: The surveillance-only society

The tradition of "carnival'' and other forms of peaceful venting of frustration is being replaced by the tradition of "carnivore'' and other forms of ubiquitous surveillance. Attempts at the prevention of local outbursts of civil disobedience will merely scale up to rupture (of the political pressure cooker).

Indeed the teaching of certain thoughts and ideas has often been regarded as a crime. And, since Roman times, certain kinds of what we might like to call "Free Speech'' have been regarded as crime. But not only is speaking often prohibited, sometimes so is taking notes, or remembering what is spoken. As recently as the WTO meetings in Washington, police orders heard over the police radio requested the seizing or destruction of reporters' written notes, and many instances of attempted willful destruction of photograhic and video evidence have been perpetrated by both the police, the military, and by others.

But these same police and military forces have their own surveillance networks, police photographers, police videographers, and covert surveillance infrastructure. Such one sided (biased) "evidence'' is perhaps worse than no "evidence'' at all.

Such is the case in a department store, where video surveillance cameras are often totally concealed or "conspicuously concealed'' in large smoked plexiglass domes of wine-dark opacity, so that an otherwise hidden camera creates a highly visible uncertainty. Often dozens of domes are used to conceal only a few cameras, with most of the domes being empty. Such domes call to mind a gambling casino or department store, where video surveillance is used extensively, yet photography or videography by individual persons is strictly prohibited. Casinos, department stores, customs offices, and other places having such monopolistic Witnessing policy fall under the following definition of totalitarian regime:

In one of the earliest critiques of the ID card proposal (January 1986) Professor Geoffrey de Q Walker, now dean of law at Queensland University, observed: 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.

---Simon Davies


Totalitarian regimes are often the cause of terrorism, or at the very least, often have a higher incidence of terrorism than less oppressive regimes. Even in places like prisons, where security and surveillance are very high, there is much in the way of protest and riots. In many ways, increasing "security'' may actually contribute to escalation from mild unrest to riots, and even to terrorism.


Sousveillance as an alternative balance

Rather than tolerating terrorism as a feedback means to restore the balance, an alternative framework would be to build a stable system to begin with, e.g. a system that is self-balancing. Such a society may be built with sousveillance (inverse surveillance) as a way to balance the increasing (and increasingly one-sided) surveillance.

I derive term "sousveillance'' from surveillance, which is defined by Merriam-Webster (summarized) as follows:

French, from surveiller to watch over,
from sur- + veiller to watch, from vigil
from Latin, wakefulness, watch, from vigil awake, watchful;
akin to Latin vigEre to be vigorous, vegEre to enliven
2 : the act of keeping awake at times when sleep is customary;
3 : an act or period of watching or surveillance : WATCH

Thus, loosely speaking, sousveillance is watchful vigilance from underneath.


A society with only oversight is an oversight on our part:

Sousveillance (roughly French for undersight) is the opposite of surveillance (roughly French for oversight). But by "sousveillance'', I'm not suggesting that the cameras be mounted on the floor, looking up, rather than being on the ceiling looking down like they are now. Rather, I am suggesting that the cameras be mounted on people in low places, rather than upon buildings and establishments in high places.

Thus the "under'' (sight) means from down under in the hierarchy, rather than physically as in "underneath'' the floor.

Let me begin by giving some trivial but illustrative simple examples of various kinds of sousveillance:

  • a taxicab passenger photographs the driver, or taxicab passengers keep tabs on driver's behaviour;
  • 1800 number "am i driving ok" on a truck so citizens can report the behaviour of the driver to the trucking company;
  • student evaluation of a professor (forms handed out to students by the professor but collected by a class representative and anonymized by the department);
  • citizens keeping a watch on their government and police forces
  • shoppers keeping tabs on shopkeepers (reporting misleading advertising, unsafe fire exits, etc.).

In many ways democracy in general should include some degree of sousveillance.

Certainly the benefits of sousveillance are obvious:

  • good drivers, professors, teachers, government officials, and police welcome sousveillance because it ensures their integrity;
  • bad drivers, professors, teachers, government officials, and police oppose sousveillance;
  • sousveillance is necessary to prevent crime, corruption, terrorism, etc.
  • building sousveillance infrastructure into a government, a police force, military, or the like, will ensure integrity, and ensure that surveillance is balanced;
  • societies with surveillance only (e.g. no sousveillance) are unstable and tend toward totalitarianism (e.g. overthrow of government, or takeover, martial law, etc.);

Indeed, the world sousveillance foundation seeks to ensure that there is at least some sousveillance to balance recent increases in surveillance. Sousveillance can be understood by the following simple experiment:

  • enter the regime;
  • ask them why they have surveillance cameras there;
  • accept a typical response such as "Why are you so paranoid? Only criminals and terrorists are afraid of cameras!'';
  • photograph the respondent;
  • observe reaction.

Bring additional persons to observe and document your observations as this may help prevent the eruption of violence.


The two kinds of sousveillance

There are two kinds of sousveillance: inband sousveillance (e.g. arising from within the organization) and out-of-band sousveillance (often unwelcome by the organization).

Examples of inband sousveillance include:

  • the 1800 numbers on the back of trucks so other drivers can report "how am I driving'';
  • evaluation of a professor by the professor's students;
  • questionnaires given to shoppers by management, to ask about their satisfaction with department store staff.

Examples of out-of-band sousveillance include:

  • taxicab passengers videotaping the driver and documenting the driver's illegal driving habits;
  • customers photographing unsafe fire exits in department stores and reporting to the fire marshall;
  • citizens videotaping police brutality and sending copies to news media.

Out-of-band sousveillance is often necessary when inband sousveillance fails.

Of course if governments and corporations collude to form a (possibly corrupt) "covernment'' (corporations plus government), the effectiveness of such sousveillance may be diminished. Likewise if the media is "bought-out'' by corporations, or unduly influenced by police and government, the effectiveness of such out-of-band sousveillance is also compromised, because it then becomes, to some extent, less out-of-band (and thus not much more effective than inband sousveillance).

Conversely, organizations that embrace, and even encourage sousveillance tend to enjoy greater stability. For example, governments that encourage freedom of a truly independent plurality of the press, tend to enjoy reduced terrorism.


Critiques of the Sousveillance Society

It has often said that sousveillance might become, to some extent, merely more surveillance, at least to the extent that it places other citizens under surveillance (e.g. when shooting in a department store, one invariably also shoots other customers in addition to the security staff and shopkeeper). However, by placing ourselves and other customers under surveillance, we destroy the monopoly on surveillance.

Another potential problem of sousveillance is the possible legitimizing of "sociological blackmail'' or even the appropriation of sousveillance for surveillance (e.g. undercover police wearing embodiments of the invention). There is the possibility that too much sousveillance might become a sort of bottom-up, grassroots surveillance, possibly sponsored by the state (e.g. mindless mobs of cyborgs wearing state-controlled sousveillance-for-surveillance hardware for denounciations).

Sousveillance can be a useful de'tournement (art of appropriating common objects or images from their usual cultural contexts and resituating them in an incongruous and disorienting fashion in order to confront, question, or challenge society's stereotypes or biases), but further research is required on how best to counteract the abuse of surveillance with sousveillance. In the sense that sousveillance is a de'tournement of surveillance, what will guard against a de'tournement of this de'tournement? This question is partly answered in a paper entitled "Diffusionism and Reflectionism'' (Leonardo, Vol. 31, No. 2, Pp. 93-102, 1998) as it becomes an informatic "arms race'' (with de'tournement raised to a certain exponent) to keep the exponent odd (or even, depending on one's point of view). This issue is one of the fundamental questions addressed in the book "Cyborg... wearable computer'' recently published by Randomhouse Doubleday (see references).

Another common criticism is that by simply shooting low-level clerks in department stores, we don't get to the true perpetrators of surveillance in higher places. Nothing could be further from the truth. Shooting at low level clerks creates a problem they can't deal with. The clerks then get their managers. The managers see the problem, and very quickly the matter escalates to head-office. The quickest way to get to speak with a manager is to photograph the low-level clerks. You get to speak to a manager much faster than if you merely ask to speak to a manager (in which case they often lie and claim that the manager is not present, or is in a meeting). This issue was explored in the 35mm motion picture film "Cyberman'' ( and in the earlier documentary "ShootingBack'' ( The results are re-producible and have been repeated around the world at least once a year through World Sousveillance Day (


Further readings



Thanks to Ollivier Dyens for asking me to write this paper, and for making some very good suggestions for improvement of an earlier draft.


appears in Metal and flesh, Vol. 6, No. 1