SEATTLE -- Surveilling the surveillers. It's an idea that Number 6, the nameless hero of the classic British TV show The Prisoner, would have loved.
In an attempt to establish equity in the world of surveillance, participants at the Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference in Seattle this week took to the streets to ferret out surveillance cameras and turn the tables on offensive eyes taking their picture.
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Following wearable computing guru Steve Mann into a downtown Seattle shopping mall, about two dozen conference attendees, some of them armed with handheld cameras, snapped photos of smoked-glass ceiling domes in Nordstrom and Gap stores, which may or may not have contained cameras.
Companies have been known to install empty camera domes to save money while giving the impression of surveillance.
The idea of surveillance that's powerful even if it's not actually present was in line with the theme of this year's CFP conference -- the Panopticon. The Panopticon, a model prison envisioned by philosopher Jeremy Bentham, would feature guard towers using mirrors that allowed the guards to see the prisoners without being seen themselves. This would leave the inmates uncertain as to when they were actually being watched.
But the mere possibility that someone might be watching would be enough to alter their behavior, ensuring, in the words of French philosopher Michel Foucault, that the effect of surveillance would be ongoing even if the surveillance itself wasn't. The mere perception of power would "render its actual exercise unnecessary."
Mann, a University of Toronto professor who helped found MIT Media Lab's Wearable Computing Project, has made it a mission to make people more aware of the surveillance around them -- in the form of cameras concealed in store smoke detectors, smoked-glass domes, illuminated door exit signs and even stuffed animals sitting on store shelf displays -- by engaging in what he calls "equiveillance through sousveillance."
The opposite of surveillance -- French for watching from above -- sousveillance refers to watching from below, essentially from beneath the eye in the sky. It's the equivalent of keeping an eye on the eye.
With that in mind, Mann conducted his tour with conference participants to see how those conducting surveillance would respond to being monitored.
Mann sported his signature camera eyewear, while some of the other participants wore CFP conference bags around their necks. The bags had a dark plastic dome stitched on one side -- modeled after store surveillance domes -- which they pointed randomly at passersby, unnerving them. Conference organizers had outfitted a handful of the bag domes with wireless webcams -- they wouldn't say which bags contained cameras -- which transmitted and recorded live streaming video to monitors in the conference lobby.
In the stores, as conference attendees snapped pictures of three smoked domes in the ceiling of a Mont Blanc pen shop, an employee inside waved his arms overhead. The intruders interpreted his gesture as happy excitement at being photographed until a summoned security guard halted the photography.
Mann asked the guard why, if the Mont Blanc cameras were recording him, he couldn't, in turn, record the cameras. But the philosophical question, asked again at Nordstrom and the Gap, was beyond the comprehension of store managers who were more concerned with the practical issues of prohibiting store photography.
At the Gap, photographers were told they couldn't take pictures because the Gap didn't want competitors to study and copy its clothing displays. At Nordstrom, an undercover security guard who looked like Baby Spice and sported a badge identifying her as Agent No. 1, summoned a manager who told Mann that customers would be disturbed by the handheld cameras.
Illogically, she didn't have a problem with participants pointing their conference bag domes around the store to take photos, just with the handheld cameras.
Mann said that duplicity is often necessary in order to mirror the Kafkaesque nature of surveillance.
He has designed a wallet that requires someone to show ID in order to see his ID. The device consists of a wallet with a card reader on it. His driver's license can be seen only partially through a display. And in order for someone to see the rest of his ID, they have to swipe their own ID through the card reader to open the wallet.
He also made a briefcase that has a fingerprint scan that requires the fingerprint of someone else to open it.
Mann quoted Simon Davies of Privacy International, a London-based nonprofit that monitors civil liberties issues: "The totalitarian regime is the regime that would like to know everything about everyone but reveal nothing about itself," Mann said.
He considered such a government an "inequiveillant regime" and likened it to signing a contract with another party without being allowed to keep a copy of the contract.
"What I argue is that if I'm going to be held accountable for my actions that I should be allowed to record ... my actions," Mann said. "Especially if somebody else is keeping a record of my actions."
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