Surveillance of digital life and the use of sousveillance as a response

If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself. — George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

The exponential growth and adoption of new technology by society has provided many social, cultural and economic benefits. However, the use of the internet and other digital media has also allowed the constant surveillance of our daily lives. This surveillance holds enormous reach — both geographically as well as the volume of data now collected — and as such has gained opposition from individuals and privacy advocates who seek to counter the grasp of ubiquitous observation. One such means of resistance is through sousveillance, an endeavour which although cannot stop surveillance, can be used as part of a broader approach to provide protection from it. The following essay will review sousveillance as a response to surveillance in a digitally mediated environment and discuss how it can be used as a form of resistance to surveillance as we go about our digital lives.

Information technology has significantly expanded the opportunity to monitor, collect and analyse personal data. The involvement of digital media in everyday activities and social interactions has allowed them to become vulnerable to tracking and data collection, creating valuable sources of information about individuals and groups (Bruno, 2012). Digital media makes surveillance increasingly pervasive, through both physical reach and an ability to gather huge amounts of data. Digital, and in particular social media, provide platforms which accumulate the consensual collection of personal data during the process of sharing and community building, and to obtain online services. This can occur in several ways, such as posting a location on Twitter, or providing contact details such as addresses or phone numbers when signing up for a new account or purchasing online goods. While these services often state that they do not share or sell personal data, most users now accept that there is no longer an expectation of complete privacy in this environment (Hencke, 2011).

Graham & Wood (2003) state that digital surveillance can be omnipresent, invisible and always on, so while some may have that expectation when using the internet and are actively providing information, they often forget that data is being constantly collected about them, in almost all facets of life. An example of this is supermarket loyalty cards, which provide discounts on groceries, all while gathering information on shopping and spending habits. The digital nature of the information allows it to be easily stored, searched and analysed (Tække, 2011) so these databases become extremely valuable for commercial enterprises. As we now increasingly acknowledge a lack of privacy while living within the digital world, the emphasis has instead shifted towards trying to protect the user, while encouraging them to share even more personal information (Woo, 2012).

While the continued sharing of this personal information is encouraged, there becomes less known about when it is being collected, who is using it, or where it is going. Programs such as AdSense, mean many web sites are constantly feeding user information to Google who then provide it to third parties who can then profile users, trends, and site performance all without the user being aware it was collected (Arrington, 2008). Further, when we enter an area where we know there is CCTV — such as a bank, or government building — we don’t actually know if the cameras are actually being watched or recorded, so we must behave as though they are.

Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon penitentiary, drawn by Willey Reveley, 1791.

It is here that the Panopticon, a prison devised by Jeremy Bentham — which allows the observation of inmates without them knowing that they are being observed — has become realised in a digital form. Foucault (1975) uses the Panopticon as a metaphor for modern societies and their pervasive inclination to observe and regulate. The Panopticon uses a facade of permanent visibility as a form of power, which modern social critics argue is no different to the technology now in use which allows introduction of panoptic structures invisibly throughout society.

The nature of digital surveillance extends the reach of the panopticon beyond the visual, whereby we’re not just being watched when we physically do something in ‘public’ but during every aspect of our lives. When we communicate and interact via digital means even people’s bodies and thoughts are susceptible to surveillance (Braman, 2006). Thus surveillance in the digital age has become more far-reaching than ever before, take for example the various means a person undergoes surveillance when simply transiting through an airport. Here infrared cameras are recording your body temperature to identify illness, facial recognition is being performed to locate persons of interest, fingerprints are taken to prove identity, and full body scans are being created to ensure no contraband is passing security. Much of this surveillance occurs without the knowledge of where this data ends up, or what future use it may have, yet demonstrates the incredibly pervasive nature of surveillance today.

The concept of surveillance invokes a notion of being observed, particularly by cameras on poles and ceilings, constantly watching. Those who oppose the proliferation of surveillance have considered the concept of reversing the power dynamic, or bringing the symbolic ‘eye’ down to human level and instead turning it to look up. Here the term sousveillance was devised by wearable computing researcher, Steve Mann who took the contrasting French word sous, meaning below, replacing sur, meaning above (Monahan, 2006). The concept of sousveillance can be in reference to physically shifting a camera to a lower level, or in relation to hierarchy, by everyday citizens watching those in positions of power or authority. Sousveillance has come to represent a challenge against the rising occurrence of digital surveillance and allows for a policing of the ‘police’.

Sousveillance has become more widespread in use and has huge implications on societal and cultural issues, most recently sparking debate around the treatment of African Americans by law enforcement, and the use of force by officials. After surveillance video of a man committing a crime was released as vindication after he was later shot by police, the camera has been increasingly turned on police in North America. Numerous instances have now occurred where members of the public have filmed arrests which have placed attention on the behaviour and actions of law enforcement, in some cases even resulting in those officers losing their jobs. The practice of sousveillance has been fuelled by access to cameras in smartphones, meaning almost everyone in the western world has the tools to sousveil at arms reach wherever they go.

“we now live in a society in which we have both the few watching the many and the many watching the few” — Steve Mann

Mann (2003) goes on to argue that widespread sousveillance will cause a transition from a biased surveillance society back to a situation where those in power could see what everyone was doing, and everyone could see what those in power where doing.

The outcomes of sousveillance can be achieved through means other than wearable computing as a means to empower people to both protect themselves and hold those in power accountable. When using the Uber driving service not only does the driver rate the passenger on completion of the journey, but the passenger also rates the driver. This creates a balance in power, while allowing drivers to avoid problem passengers as well as strive to provide a high level of service themselves.

Street Art, Banksy

Sousveillance in of itself hasn’t been an effective method of opposition in order to curtail surveillance. In fact, the information leaked by Edward Snowden about mass surveillance shows that the means by which it is being done is even more technologically advanced and pervasive that was ever before thought. Sousveillance demonstrates a defiance towards surveillance, and can at times turn the tables on those in authority, however does not contribute towards preventing it occurring. In order to truly disrupt digital surveillance one must employ methods which obstruct the collection of digital information rather than simply collect it from others. Once such means is the use of encryption (Hope 2005), or the encoding of information in such a way that only those who are authorised can access it. As encryption becomes more commonplace, its effectiveness is evident in protests by the government to provide them with ‘backdoor’ access to prevent criminals from using it (Zakrzewski, 2015).

We receive warning of the perils of surveillance via a variety of sources, from Edward Snowden and Glen Greenwald to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and The Truman Show. Despite the threat to personal liberty and possibly invasions of privacy people continue to willingly subject themselves to the collection of their digital information. This can occur while they walk down a city street just as equally as when they sit at home, purchasing a new pair of jeans from an online store. Digital technology has advanced to a point where the warnings of old are no longer science fiction, and under the guise of improved security and safety, governments are collecting larger amounts of data with great enthusiasm. Through all this there continues to be a lack of understanding as to why digital surveillance is harmful. Supporters argue it can protect society from criminals and terrorists while others seem resigned to the fact that little privacy is now available so have accepted surveillance and data gathering at the norm. The common viewpoint of the indifferent is that if you are obeying the law, there is nothing to fear (Solove, 2007) — that those breaking it should have no expectation of privacy, and for everyone else surveillance doesn’t affect them.

In contrast, civil liberty groups warn that with governments now able to monitor the activities of almost anyone there is a risk to political and personal freedoms. They further argue that we all in fact do have things we would rather others not know, be it details of past relationships or simply not wanting our employer to know we’re looking for a new job. The greatest risk however is that although information may seem to be benign today, is likely to be stored forever, having an ability to cause unforeseen issues in the future.

Although we now exist in a world of total surveillance, we don’t necessarily have to accept the risks associated with it. We live in a time where commercial entities and government agencies are throwing enormous resource at collecting more and more digital information about everyone and everything they can, through technology which allows uninterrupted and undiscerning observation of our everyday lives. Sousveillance represents one way in which people can resist the growing digital Panopticon. While sousveillance is more resistance than obstruction to digital surveillance, when combined with other forms of defiance it can build part of a defence to our independence and privacy and our ability to maintain a free civil society.


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