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May 04, 2004
"Sousveillance" and the politics of cameraphones

We live in an age of surveillance -- with a zillion security cameras all over the place. And if you know your French, you'll know that "surveillance" means "watching from above." Steve Mann has a different idea: "Sousveillance". That means "watching from below". Instead of having the authorities snoop on you, you turn the camera on them -- and let them know their surveillance is itself being surveyed and noted.

Mann, of course, is in a good position to do this type of thing. He invented the "wearable" computer, and for decades he's been building and wearing his own units that keep him online every waking minute, broadcasting the Internet into his eye via a headmounted display. But Mann has also spent years doing the reverse: He wears a camera that records everything he looks at, and broadcasts that online. What he sees, the world sees. As it turns out, this frequently makes authorities incredibly nervous; they like putting cameras on you, but become incredibly distressed if you do the same to them. Mann has regularly gotten into conflicts with security people who demand he remove his cameras and stop recording them. It's as if these guys had ripped pages out of Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish and were using them as script.

Over at The Feature, Howard Rheingold muses on Mann's idea of "sousveillance", and points out that it may become a regular part of life -- because more and more people are carrying around cameraphones.

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.

The advent of connected cameraphones changes the political stakes in a rather neat way, because ...

... 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.

(Thanks to Techdirt Wireless for this one!)

Posted by Clive Thompson at May 04, 2004 08:09 PM | TrackBack

"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."

Shutting down local phone cells is now a recommended tactic for most UK police authorities in any situation where they feel premature or biased coverage of situations may inflame tensions. Pretty much at their own discretion.
You'll also find that arbitrary seizure of mobile phones is covered by "anti-terrorism" legislation in both the UK and the US.

Posted by: Draxen on May 18, 2004 12:04 PM
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