Tips & Resources

Surveillance vs. Sousveillance and Perceptions of Safety

By Lily Mills, Novus Health

Where would you or your clients feel safer?

  • In a convenience store with no security measures in place, or in a grocery store with cameras at all angles?
  • On a vacant, unmonitored subway platform, or in an empty office with screens displaying active closed-circuit feeds?
  • Hitchhiking along the Trans-Canada Highway in the middle of the day, or walking on a city street at 3am with police surveillance units at every corner?

These scenarios not only demonstrate the various purposes of surveillance cameras, but also cause us to reflect on how they make us feel. Some are meant to protect businesses, while others are there to protect humans. When monitors are present and obvious, the perceived security offered by the recordings is amplified.

But what if sousveillance was a readily available, even commonplace, option? How would it affect these types of situations, your perceived safety, and the decisions you make? Coined by Dr. Steve Mann of the University of Toronto, sousveillance† refers to recordings taking place at the level of the human eye, as opposed to the all-seeing eye of the overhead camera.

Dr. Mann came to visit the Intrepid 24/7 team the other week. He’s known as the “father of wearable computing” because of the technologies he’s been developing since the late 1970s (when he was in his teens).  He presented us with an overview of his work and gave us the opportunity to interact with some of his inventions. As always, he was wearing his EyeTap device (links to video), which he uses as a visual aid. If you watch the video, you’re almost certain to make a connection between his wearable technology and the heavily-discussed Google Glass product.

Those of us who shared a room with him could have perceivably been at his sousveillance. But weren’t we already? How does sousveillance affect us in ways the naked eye can’t?

Go back to that empty subway platform, this time wearing a sousveillance camera. It could be over your eye, on your head, or maybe hanging around your neck. It’s sending the data of your recordings in a constant feed to a server in California. Do you feel safer?

Now go back to that grocery store with the multitude of security cameras. Imagine another customer is wearing a visible sousveillance camera, but you aren’t. How does it make you feel? Are you more opposed to the store’s surveillance or the customer’s sousveillance? Do you feel differently if you’re wearing one too?

In all of these situations, our perceptions of safety are inherently intertwined with perceptions of power. These, in turn, are affected by our perceptions of trust, trustworthiness, and intent. The camera has power because it’s an instrument that records our actions, and digital recordings have the power to supersede time and space, amplifying the anxiety we can feel while being watched.*

The grocery store cameras may feel a bit creepy, but generally we accept them since we are on the proprietor’s property and understand their need to guard their merchandise. And the surveillance seems egalitarian, since we’re all being watched equally. We know the intent of these cameras, and historically they haven’t been used for malevolent purposes.

But we don’t yet have the narrative to fully understand the intent behind the stranger wearing a piece of sousveillance technology. Can we trust them? What is it for? Will they try to use their recordings against us? Conversely, if we’re the ones wearing the technology, we know what our intent is—but we may have to deal with the resultant anxieties and insecurity we impose on those around us, something Dr. Mann says he has experienced many times. (That being said, Dr. Mann told us he didn’t record his visit to Intrepid 24/7, but none of my colleagues expressed any concern with the fact that he could have.)

Issues of trust, safety, intent, and power/equality will soon be prevalent, and will have to be considered and tackled as we enter an age where sousveillance becomes more common—especially if you choose to be an early adopter. You can explore more sousveillance scenarios on Steve Mann’s blog.

So what of our meeting with Dr. Steve Mann? Did he just happen to be in the area, showing his wares? Well, we certainly wouldn’t mind if he had been doing just that, but perhaps there is more to one day explore…

†This link points to an interview with Dr. Mann conducted by a commercial company on the topic of sousveillance. The company itself has an interest in promoting its product, but the interview material provides a good understanding of Dr. Mann’s ideas.

*At this point, it’s appropriate to make the obligatory hat tips to Michel Foucault and this theories of the gaze relative to the panopticon (as addressed in Discipline and Punish), as well as to Harold Innis (also formerly of the University of Toronto) for The Bias of Communication.