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Thursday, August 18, 2016

If You Can't Beat 'em...

I had an incident the other day that got me thinking. Whilst working behind the information desk at my place of employment (think family friendly museum/gallery type thing), two customers approached the to ask for a map. This was nothing exceptional, and indeed entirely expected considering the context we were in, with the strange exception of the harness one of the couple was wearing.  It had all the appearance of a comically small backpack, complete with shoulder straps and the like however, it also appeared to be on backwards. On closer inspection it became obvious that what they had on was in fact a chest mount for an action camera, not dissimilar to this:

JVC Adixxion MT-CH001 by JVCAmerica (CC BY 4.0)
Perhaps they had ridden here and it served as the cycling equivalent of a dash-cam, or maybe this was just how they like to take photos, or it could have been a new toy being taken out for a test run. I mentally ran through multiple scenarios (all of which I was fine with, by the way), until I noticed the red blinking LED on the front. They were filming me, and this made me uncomfortable.

Up until that point, it had been to me an oddity. I’d never seen one being worn in an urban public space and was idly curious as to why one would do so, but now that I realised I was being recorded I was immediately suspicious of their motives, and to a degree offended that they felt this was appropriate. I did my job, and they went happily on their way, maps in hand and camera recording whatever and whoever it pointed at (I saw them an hour or two later and the little red light was still cheerily blinking). To add a dash of irony to the situation, my workplace sports a comprehensive array of surveillance cameras, not to mention security guards and staff (like myself) to keep an eye on things… all of which I am completely comfortable with.

The concept of ‘sousveillance’ has been around for some time now and is effectively ‘a form of reflectionism… a philosophy and procedures of using technology to mirror and confront bureaucratic organisations’ (Mann, S, et al, 2003 p.333), where in this particular case* an individual sports their own surveillance camera to emulate and challenge any institution doing the same. The terminology here, seemingly pitting the individual against, larger bureaucratic entities brings to mind the noble image of a restorative action, where a dis-empowered society can reclaim some semblance of control and at times, justice. Even the word itself contains these implications where ‘sousveillance has been built to designate the act of watching (veiller) from below (sous). In the case of sousveillance, the watchers are socially below those who are watched, while in the case of surveillance it is the opposite, they are above’ (Ganascia, J 2010 p.493).

One of the most iconic examples of this was the 1991 filming of four LAPD officers beating an unarmed Rodney King (with other officers present), showing what was undoubtedly an excessive use of force. Despite the video, the four officers were acquitted, however the presence of the footage in the public domain opened wider discussions regarding police brutality, and training methods (Mann, S, Nolan, J, & Wellman, B 2003). It is arguable that had this video not been taken and distributed, then the event could have been covered up, and no subsequent light shed on poor cultural and training practices of the LAPD. 

Since then, with increasing public access to affordable and practical surveillance devices (i.e. mobile phones), sousveillance has become a regular practice, and few of us think twice about individuals filming and documenting events that they take part in, be it a festival, or observing how transport officials deal with a passenger with no valid ticket. This ubiquity of observation would, ‘according to Steve Mann and to others… lead to a more balanced world state of justice, since everybody would act as if he were observed by others’ (Ganascia, J 2010 p.493).

I do not share Mann’s optimism on this subject however. This ‘balanced world state’ seems to rely too much on the objectivity of the footage and what it reveals, whilst overlooking the lack of objectivity inherent in the people reviewing it. This is evident in the Rodney King case where, when the officers were brought to trial their defence ‘never played the video straight through; instead they stopped and started it second by second. With the images taken out of context and isolated from the timeline, the moments shown seemed more defensible’ (Bock, MA, 2016). What was objective proof, had become subjective narrative.
we're on the same page... right?
Young man and woman taking pictures of each other by ralphbijker (CC BY 2.0)
There is also the issue of people moderating their behaviour in the knowledge of being observed. As Walter Kirn put it, ‘you have two options when you’re under surveillance (and only two); one is hide. The other is perform’ (Is My Phone Eavesdropping on Me? 2015), and in my case dealing with the (potentially misidentified) sousveiller, I chose the latter. It was a similar feeling to when one is driving and spots a police car; you know that you’ve done nothing wrong, yet you still slow down (well below the speed limit) and run through that mental checklist of possible misdemeanours, all the while trying to convey an aura of model-citizenship. With that in mind, does the footage of my ‘performance’ accurately represent me? A review of the footage may yield an entire day of interactions with people who appear suspicious or defensive, when in fact, they may simply feel uneasy with having somebody film them point-blank with no explanation.

There is a danger in taking the assumption that ‘data is meaningful’, at face value.Actions cannot be judged out of context, nor can they be assessed without knowledge of the reasons behind them, and the rights and duties of those involved’ (Enfield, N 2015). So to my would-be sousveiller. I applaud your right to take a stand, and encourage you to so. However, please be careful, as the power imbalance that you seek to redress is potentially embodied in your own actions.

*I am well aware that there could be numerous plausible explanations for her camera-toting antics, but it got me thinking about sousveillance and so, for the sake of this discussion, I'll assume this was the case.


Mann, S, Nolan, J, & Wellman, B 2003, 'Sousveillance: Inventing and Using Wearable Computing Devices for Data Collection in Surveillance Environments', Surveillance & Society, 1, 3, pp. 331-355

Ganascia, J 2010, 'The generalized sousveillance society', Social Science Information, vol. 49, no. 3, pp. 489-507

Bock, MA, 2016, How Video Can Help Police – and the Public, The Conversation, retrieved 1 August 2016, http://theconversation.com/how-video-can-help-police-and-the-public-61336

Is My Phone Eavesdropping on Me? 2015, podcast, Note to Self, 4 November, retrieved 20 July 2016, http://www.wnyc.org/story/walter-kirn-paranoid-crazy

Enfield, N 2015, Accountability and the Viral Video: there are still no guarantees, The Conversation, retrieved 28 July 2016, http://theconversation.com/accountability-and-the-viral-video-there-are-still-no-guarantees-49677


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