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We're watching them: citizens monitor the state
Since 1998, a group of people in Canada have been going out to shopping malls every Christmas Eve and taking photographs of the security cameras on 24-hour duty.
Similar groups have sprung up in the US and in Britain, mobilising around an action they call 'World Sousveillance Day' (WSD). The idea is simple: on the day the rest of the western world rush to spend their paychecks, participants of WSD interrupt the carefully-controlled system of surveilled consumerism by noticing and reflecting the gaze directed at them, thereby actively resisting the self-policing which civilian surveillance induces.
The concept of 'sousveillance' has gained traction over recent years. Initially coined by Steve Mann, a professor at the University of Toronto, the term describes the 'inverse of surveillance', conducted by ordinary citizens.
The idea of the citizen as monitor is not a new one, however. In 1991, a bystander videotaped the Los Angeles Police Department's brutal beating of a young man called Rodney King. The video was seen by millions of people around the world and used as evidence in a court case against the police officers concerned. It also inspired the creation of WITNESS, an organisation aimed at empowering citizens to use video for human rights.
With the development of internet-enabled mobile phones and streaming technology, the very act of digital vigilance has now been democratised. And advocates and activists of all types are taking advantage, using this technology to turn the tables on governments, institutions and corporations. From monitoring elections to recording police brutality, citizens are now equipped with all kinds of tools which enable them to gather and disseminate information exposing wrongdoing and demanding transparency.
In 2007 and 2008, the Targuist Sniper caused uproar after he captured and posted videos on Youtube showing several police officers in Morocco accepting bribes from car and truck drivers on the road. His videos were viewed over 1.7 million times, prompting the Moroccan government to enforce large-scale fines on his town in an attempt to pressure him to stop his activities.
Out of Bangalore, local NGO Janaagraha created I Paid A Bribe to promote a culture of whistleblowing in India, where citizens are expected to pay bribes to government officials for anything from a driving licence to a rations card. As Namita Singh writes on the Global Voices blogging platform, “Citizens who cannot afford to pay up suffer due to their inability, and those who can have no option than to give in to corruption. There has been increasing anger and frustration against bribery, but at the same time there is a high level of tolerance too. Some citizens habitually offer bribes in exchange for services, further perpetuating corruption.”
The 'I Paid a Bribe' website allows people to anonymously report their stories (written or on video) of instances where they have either paid a bribe, or declined to pay a bribe when offered. The data is then analysed, revealing which government departments are the most corrupt.
There was a lot of excitement about the perceived success of this 'name and shame' tactic after the State Transport Department of Karnataka invited Janaagraha to present the findings of 'I Paid a Bribe' to department staff. 20 cautions were then issued to officers based on the website's data, the BBC reported. There has, however, unfortunately been little evidence of behaviour change by officials since.
But in the act of bottom-up monitoring lies an inherent capacity to subvert power. Steve Mann explains the difference between surveillance and sousveillance: “There is more of a bi-directionality with sousveillance. Surveillance is corrosive to society. The presence of sousveillance reduces the need for surveillance. In a sousveillance society, people can know what everybody's up to.”
Chinese political artist Ai Weiwei has used this in a poignant act of defiance against the Chinese government. By setting up a simple system of home webcams, he is able to broadcast his life under house arrest to the public, thereby cleverly inverting the government's own surveillance of him. Now that anyone can monitor him day and night, the need for surveillance is rendered redundant.
On the flip side, the democratic potential of sousveillance also opens up more sinister possibilities. Take the mobile phone application Sukey, for example. This tool was developed by a group of tech-activists in London in late 2010, during student protests against planned cuts to further education budgets. Sukey crowdsourced reports on the locations of police kettles through Twitter, Google Latitude, text message, and image services like Flickr and TwitPic. The intention was for protesters to be able to use the realtime mapped data to circumvent police blockades and move freely and securely through the city.
However, as civilians monitored the police, the possibility was created for the civilians themselves to be tracked, and their identities revealed. The images protesters submitted to Twitpic and Flickr carried metadata (which Sukey failed to advise people to remove) providing key information on the person who captured the photo: the time the photo was taken, the device used, and the IP address of the device accessing the internet. Because Sukey is run on an open system, traffic data was also not anonymous, and people could easily be tracked through their mobile phone companies. As a Spyblog blogger pointed out, “It provides a Communications Data analysis and data mining opportunity for UK police and intelligence agencies, foreign intelligence agencies and corporate spies.”
In cases like this, where tools are provided for citizens to monitor authority, we need to ask questions about the risks to those using them. As new technologies make it easier to track from the ground up, we should never forget that the gaze is still being returned. And while it is definitely empowering and exciting to see civilians flipping the power dynamic set up by surveillance, a world where 'everyone knows what everyone else is up to' is hardly ideal either.
New Tactics dialogue: empowering citizens to fight corruption, 2010.
On the identity trail: an interview with Steve Mann, 2004.
Ai Weiwei's #weiweicam, Aljazeera English, 2012.
Clive Thompson on establishing rules in the digital age, Wired Magazine, 2011.