Sousveillance, not just surveillance,
in response to terrorism
By Steve Mann
2002 March 1.
Appears in Metal and Flesh, Volume 6, No. 1
War of the Wires
When we plug our toaster, kettle, and frying pan into the same electrical circuit,
there is a good chance that a sacrificial suicide electrical element, called a "fuse''
will blow itself up. The fuse will sacrifice itself in order to disrupt the "business
as usual'' in our kitchen.
This will cause a minor but annoying disruption to our Home(land) security. It is then,
that we realize how vulnerable we are without essential services like electricity,
lighting, heat, and our alarm system or other security systems.
Therefore we call in our Home(land) Defense Initiative Response Team (or call upon
ourselves to take the laws of electricity into our own hands) to seize the blown-up fuse,
and install our own electrical dictator in its place.
The rest of the house is quite foreign to the fusebox, and the fuses know very little
about what goes on in the world beyond the confines of the basement. With bad foreign
electrical policy, the fuses continue to blow themselves up in order to disrupt our
essential services. The casualties continue to grow. In the bathroom, you cut your face
because your electric shaver cuts out mid-strike into your beard. To add insult to injury,
these suicide "fusitives'' blow themselves up and shut down your computer at the very
moment when you're trying to play some loud music to mask the sounds of all the family
members blow-drying their hair at the same time in the morning. Suddenly the house is
silent, and everyone has to go out into the cold with wet hair, while you stay home and
try to recover the data that was lost from the now corrupt hard drive in your computer.
In your anger, you call in the Electrical Guard. Something has to be done, and somebody
is going to pay for this. We cannot simply allow "fusitives'' to terrorize us and our
children who are now exhibiting flulike symptoms after going out into the cold winter
morning with wet hair.
Now is the time to open up our wallets and install some reinforcements into the
fusebox. For only a few pennies, we can declare martial law on the fusebox, and install
our copper pennywise preventatives. Now with the basement safely barricaded behind the
Copper Curtain, there can be no more copper-unrest or dissent, so the higher-ups (e.g.
those on the upper floors) may begin to feel safe and secure. Now everyone in the family
can run their blow dryers together every morning, and everyone feels healthier with dry
hair on those cold winter mornings. The daily disruptions have come to an end, at last.
All's well until the wiring in our house becomes a hotbed of electrical unrest. Without
the daily civil unrest from the fusebox, the family is no longer reminded of its terrible
foreign electrical policy. Now you're frying up bacon and eggs, boiling your kettle, and
making your toast, while everyone else in the house is blow-drying their hair at the same
time. You have long since forgotten to unplug the kettle before you press down the lever
on the toaster. Why should you unplug the kettle just to please those fusitives in the
basement dungeons? You are the one in high-command, and you haven't been down into the
basement for almost a year now. That's why you can't see the smoke down in the basement,
coming from the electrical hotbed of wiring unrest. You don't realize that your house is a
political tinderbox of protest, until you smell smoke coming from the heating ducts. The
wiring is waging a war, and the casualties are great in number, as the tinderbox is
engulfed in flames.
With your increased "security'' the unrest happens less frequently, but is more
catastrophic when it finally does happen.
The Political Pressurecooker
When homeland security replaces the freedom to scrutinize foreign policy, we have a
political pressure cooker. As we clamp the lid down tighter and tighter, we can turn up
the temperature more before things start to boil over. And we DO turn up the temperature,
simply because we can.
With greater security, the disruptions become less frequent but more severe. Rather
than merely a few drops dripping onto the stove continuously, we have the whole thing blow
up but only occasionally.
Civil unrest, riots, and terrorism appear to arise from an imbalance of power.
Of course, lumping terrorism together with civil unrest may at first seem strange, but
we live in strange times in which many governments are using the term "terrorism'' to
quiet nearly any expression of dissenting opinion. Thus why bother trying to distinguish
between "bad foreign policy'' and "terrorism'' when the line between domestic
and foreign terrorism is so quickly being blurred? (Note, for example, terminology like
"domestic preparedness'' --- preparedness against what?) In fact, as governments try
to broaden their scope of what they consider to be "terrorism'' and include peaceful
protests and nearly all manner of civil unrest in their definition of "terrorism'',
one wonders if this broadened scope is beginning to include the government's own
activities as "terrorism''. Chomsky hints at this notion (e.g. one's own government
and corporations as terrorists) through his terminology "wholesale terrorism'' versus
"retail terrorism''. In his view, and the view of many others, "it takes two to
tango'', e.g. it takes two to terrorize (each other). Indeed the so-called "war on
terrorism'' suggests that terrorism is a new kind of war, and we know that it takes at
least two sides to fight a war (against each other). And a war is not a pleasant or
collegial thing to wage.
Every political force has an approximately equal and opposite political force. If there
is an imbalance of force, we will simply ``increase'' our foreign policy until we meet a
"balance'' of "power''. We'll simply keep plugging in more toasters, kettles,
and hair dryers, simply because we can. Only when we meet that equilibrium point, where we
are reminded of our wrongdoing, will we back down and start unplugging things.
A true balance of power arises when a plurality of diversely independent groups
(nations, beliefs, theories, philosophies, or other collectives) have approximately equal
power, and sustain a plurality of viewpoints.
In a fit of desperation, arising from a disastrous imbalance, an oppressed party may be
willing to go to more drastic measures to reach further out, to restore balance. Such
balance is like a fulcrum in which the mild-mannered heavyweight achieves balance with a
lightweight extremist group. Suppression of peaceful protest marches will free-up the
streets for more utilitarian uses, but will give way to a louder protest from a more vocal
minority. Suppression of this vocal minority to keep the streets quiet will give rise to a
temporary illusion of peace and quiet, followed by more catostrophic uprisings.
Killing off (e.g. by bombing, military strikes, or the like) the extremist groups that
arise (domestic and abroad --- it's getting harder to make a distinction) might provide
some temporary security, but will also result in further increases in oppression. This
oppression may take the form of an oppressive foreign policy, or simply the result of
globalization in which the boundary between "domestic'' and "foreign'' is
The further increases in oppression arise because of the lack of balance. Without
peaceful marches in the street to disrupt the "business as usual'', there is no
reminder of our excessive consumption. Without an equal and opposite force, the balance
swings further out from the center of the fulcrum and keeps going until it meets another
equal and opposite force. Thus terrorism is merely a symptom of a life out of balance.
Accordingly, totalitarianism and increased surveillance is not a suitable recipe for
prevention of terrorism. Quite the opposite, totalitarianism (and security, surveillance,
etc.) may actually be the cause of, rather than the cure for, terrorism.
When there is a balance of power among a plurality of viewpoints and a diversity of
ideology, there seems to be little unrest. But when there is imbalance, there seems to be
unrest, which can escalate to riots, and even violent terrorism, when the system is out of
balance. Thus the smaller restoring forces are pushed further from the center (possibly as
far as self-destruction) to balance the fulcrum.
Terrorism, therefore, does not happen in a vacuum, but, rather, is often a response to
Secrecy, not privacy, may be the true cause of terrorism
"many people feel that the security of Big Brother is another form of terror.''
Message 9/4945 From Gary Morton Dec 08, 01 09:56:40 PM -0500
Subject: Protest Begins Against Canada's Severe Anti Terrorist Legislation
It has often been said that the true causes of terrorism are oppression, bad foreign
policy, and secrecy, rather than privacy. In fact some have even gone so far as to say
that they've felt more frightened of the soldiers of their own armed forces than of the
so-called "terrorists'', and many have gone as far as referring to their own "Big
Brother'' governments or security forces as the true source of terror(ism).
Thus it is worth understanding this secrecy-rather-than-privacy aspect of terrorism.
Secret organizations often run open-loop, without the normal feedback mechanisms that
provide important checks and balances. Feedback is the simple process of
observability-controllability like we find in a home thermostat. When the homeland gets
too hot, the thermostat provides the checks and balances needed to shut off the furnace.
But the secret burners under the political pressure cookers have no thermostat --- nothing
to keep them in a state of equilibrium or balance. Rather than short-cycling on and off
regularly, they run for longer and longer but more drastic cycles called "revolutions''
or other more major forms of unrest, disaster, or carnage. As we break down the fuseboxes
and other safety features between the various branches of government, and as we remove the
safety checks and balances between governments and corporations, everything appears to be
the same as (or better than) it was before, but we are setting ourselves up for even
greater disaster. By implementing military tribunals, we're enabling the possibility of
"kangaroo courts'' for political prisoners and other dissidents.
As we build massive
on our airforce bases,
allegedly to contain outbreaks of bioterror (e.g.
smallpox, plague, etc.), we're failing to install fuses that might protect from the
rounding up of dissidents. As we wire the planet for surveillance, we're wiring it without
It is not privacy that is the cause of the problem. It is not the unphotographed,
unfingerprinted, unsurveilled citizens who are to blame, but, rather, it is the larger
pressure cooking machinery that needs to be questioned.
Blaming terrorism on individual citizens is like blaming the blown up boiler on the
first few molecules of steam that escape through the first rupture in the pressure cooker.
Instead of putting each molecule under surveillance to see which are the first to
"step out of line'' through a hole blown in the side of the boiler, we should really
be looking at the secret stove that operates witout scrutiny.
Wiring the world without fuses: The surveillance-only society
The tradition of "carnival'' and other forms of peaceful venting of frustration is
being replaced by the tradition of "carnivore'' and other forms of ubiquitous
surveillance. Attempts at the prevention of local outbursts of civil disobedience will
merely scale up to rupture (of the political pressure cooker).
Indeed the teaching of certain thoughts and ideas has often been regarded as a crime.
And, since Roman times, certain kinds of what we might like to call "Free Speech''
have been regarded as crime. But not only is speaking often prohibited, sometimes so is
taking notes, or remembering what is spoken. As recently as the WTO meetings in
Washington, police orders heard over the police radio requested the seizing or destruction
of reporters' written notes, and many instances of attempted willful destruction of
photograhic and video evidence have been perpetrated by both the police, the military, and
But these same police and military forces have their own surveillance networks, police
photographers, police videographers, and covert surveillance infrastructure. Such one
sided (biased) "evidence'' is perhaps worse than no "evidence'' at all.
Such is the case in a department store, where video surveillance cameras are often
totally concealed or "conspicuously concealed'' in large smoked plexiglass domes of
wine-dark opacity, so that an otherwise hidden camera creates a highly visible
uncertainty. Often dozens of domes are used to conceal only a few cameras, with most of
the domes being empty. Such domes call to mind a gambling casino or department store,
where video surveillance is used extensively, yet photography or videography by individual
persons is strictly prohibited. Casinos, department stores, customs offices, and other
places having such monopolistic Witnessing policy fall under the following definition of
In one of the earliest critiques of the ID card proposal (January 1986) Professor
Geoffrey de Q Walker, now dean of law at Queensland University, observed: One of the
fundamental contrasts between free democratic societies and totalitarian systems is that
the totalitarian government [or other totalitarian organization] relies on secrecy for the
regime but high surveillance and disclosure for all other groups, whereas in the civic
culture of liberal democracy, the position is approximately the reverse.
Totalitarian regimes are often the cause of terrorism, or at the very least, often have
a higher incidence of terrorism than less oppressive regimes. Even in places like prisons,
where security and surveillance are very high, there is much in the way of protest and
riots. In many ways, increasing "security'' may actually contribute to escalation
from mild unrest to riots, and even to terrorism.
Sousveillance as an alternative balance
Rather than tolerating terrorism as a feedback means to restore the balance, an
alternative framework would be to build a stable system to begin with, e.g. a system that
is self-balancing. Such a society may be built with sousveillance (inverse surveillance)
as a way to balance the increasing (and increasingly one-sided) surveillance.
I derive term "sousveillance'' from surveillance, which is defined by
Merriam-Webster (summarized) as follows:
French, from surveiller to watch over,
from sur- + veiller to watch, from vigil
from Latin, wakefulness, watch, from vigil awake, watchful;
akin to Latin vigEre to be vigorous, vegEre to enliven
2 : the act of keeping awake at times when sleep is customary;
3 : an act or period of watching or surveillance : WATCH
Thus, loosely speaking, sousveillance is watchful vigilance from underneath.
A society with only oversight is an oversight on our part:
Sousveillance (roughly French for undersight) is the opposite of surveillance (roughly
French for oversight). But by "sousveillance'', I'm not suggesting that the cameras
be mounted on the floor, looking up, rather than being on the ceiling looking down like
they are now. Rather, I am suggesting that the cameras be mounted on people in low places,
rather than upon buildings and establishments in high places.
Thus the "under'' (sight) means from down under in the hierarchy, rather than
physically as in "underneath'' the floor.
Let me begin by giving some trivial but illustrative simple examples of various kinds
- a taxicab passenger photographs the driver, or taxicab passengers keep tabs on driver's
- 1800 number "am i driving ok" on a truck so citizens can report the behaviour
of the driver to the trucking company;
- student evaluation of a professor (forms handed out to students by the professor but
collected by a class representative and anonymized by the department);
- citizens keeping a watch on their government and police forces
- shoppers keeping tabs on shopkeepers (reporting misleading advertising, unsafe fire
In many ways democracy in general should include some degree of sousveillance.
Certainly the benefits of sousveillance are obvious:
- good drivers, professors, teachers, government officials, and police welcome
sousveillance because it ensures their integrity;
- bad drivers, professors, teachers, government officials, and police oppose
- sousveillance is necessary to prevent crime,
corruption, terrorism, etc.
- building sousveillance infrastructure into a government, a police force, military, or
the like, will ensure integrity, and ensure that surveillance is balanced;
- societies with surveillance only (e.g. no sousveillance) are unstable and tend toward
totalitarianism (e.g. overthrow of government, or takeover, martial law, etc.);
Indeed, the world sousveillance foundation seeks
to ensure that there is at least some sousveillance to balance recent increases in
surveillance. Sousveillance can be understood by the following simple experiment:
- enter the regime;
- ask them why they have surveillance cameras there;
- accept a typical response such as "Why are you so paranoid? Only criminals and
terrorists are afraid of cameras!'';
- photograph the respondent;
- observe reaction.
Bring additional persons to observe and document your observations as this may help
prevent the eruption of violence.
The two kinds of sousveillance
There are two kinds of sousveillance: inband sousveillance (e.g. arising from within
the organization) and out-of-band sousveillance (often unwelcome by the organization).
Examples of inband sousveillance include:
- the 1800 numbers on the back of trucks so other drivers can report "how am I
- evaluation of a professor by the professor's students;
- questionnaires given to shoppers by management, to ask about their satisfaction with
department store staff.
Examples of out-of-band sousveillance include:
- taxicab passengers videotaping the driver and documenting the driver's illegal driving
- customers photographing unsafe fire exits in department stores and reporting to the fire
- citizens videotaping police brutality and sending copies to news media.
Out-of-band sousveillance is often necessary when inband sousveillance fails.
Of course if governments and corporations collude to form a (possibly corrupt) "covernment''
(corporations plus government), the effectiveness of such sousveillance may be diminished.
Likewise if the media is "bought-out'' by corporations, or unduly influenced by
police and government, the effectiveness of such out-of-band sousveillance is also
compromised, because it then becomes, to some extent, less out-of-band (and thus not much
more effective than inband sousveillance).
Conversely, organizations that embrace, and even encourage sousveillance tend to enjoy
greater stability. For example, governments that encourage freedom of a truly independent
plurality of the press, tend to enjoy reduced terrorism.
Critiques of the Sousveillance Society
It has often said that sousveillance might become, to some extent, merely more
surveillance, at least to the extent that it places other citizens under surveillance
(e.g. when shooting in a department store, one invariably also shoots other customers in
addition to the security staff and shopkeeper). However, by placing ourselves and other
customers under surveillance, we destroy the monopoly on surveillance.
Another potential problem of sousveillance is the possible legitimizing of "sociological
blackmail'' or even the appropriation of sousveillance for surveillance (e.g. undercover
police wearing embodiments of the invention). There is the possibility that too much
sousveillance might become a sort of bottom-up, grassroots surveillance, possibly
sponsored by the state (e.g. mindless mobs of cyborgs wearing state-controlled
sousveillance-for-surveillance hardware for denounciations).
Sousveillance can be a useful de'tournement (art of appropriating common objects or
images from their usual cultural contexts and resituating them in an incongruous and
disorienting fashion in order to confront, question, or challenge society's stereotypes or
biases), but further research is required on how best to counteract the abuse of
surveillance with sousveillance. In the sense that sousveillance is a de'tournement of
surveillance, what will guard against a de'tournement of this de'tournement? This question
is partly answered in a paper entitled "Diffusionism and Reflectionism'' (Leonardo,
Vol. 31, No. 2, Pp. 93-102, 1998) as it becomes an informatic "arms race'' (with
de'tournement raised to a certain exponent) to keep the exponent odd (or even, depending
on one's point of view). This issue is one of the fundamental questions addressed in the
book "Cyborg... wearable computer'' recently published by Randomhouse Doubleday (see
Another common criticism is that by simply shooting low-level clerks in department
stores, we don't get to the true perpetrators of surveillance in higher places. Nothing
could be further from the truth. Shooting at low level clerks creates a problem they can't
deal with. The clerks then get their managers. The managers see the problem, and very
quickly the matter escalates to head-office. The quickest way to get to speak with a
manager is to photograph the low-level clerks. You get to speak to a manager much faster
than if you merely ask to speak to a manager (in which case they often lie and claim that
the manager is not present, or is in a meeting). This issue was explored in the 35mm
motion picture film "Cyberman'' (http://wearcam.org/cyberman.htm) and in
the earlier documentary "ShootingBack'' (http://wearcam.org/shootingback.htm).
The results are re-producible and have been repeated around the world at least once a year
through World Sousveillance Day (http://wearcam.org/wsd.htm).
Thanks to Ollivier Dyens for asking me to write this paper, and for making some very
good suggestions for improvement of an earlier draft.