Steve Mann, 2002

Secrecy, not privacy, may be the true cause of terrorism

Gary Morton once said that ``many people feel that the security of Big Brother is another form of terror.'' -- Gary Morton, Dec 08, 01 09:56:40 PM -0500, posted to

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''.)

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.

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'', we should really be looking at the secret stove that operates witout scrutiny.

The surveillance society

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 by others.

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 totalitarian regime:

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.

---Simon Davies


Totalitarian regimes are often the cause of terrorism, or at the very least, often have a higher incidence of terrorism than less oppressive regimes. Thus increasing ``security'' may actually increase terrorism, rather than reduce it.

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 the 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 of sousveillance:

In many ways democracy in general should include some degree of sousveillance.

Certainly the benefits of sousveillance are obvious:

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: 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 (which I call "subveillance") include:

wherein "subveillance" is subversive, in the sense of "turning the tables" on surveillance from within the organization, ("subversive" literally meaning "to turn from beneath", working secretly from within an organization). Examples of out-of-band sousveillance include: 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 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).

Further readings

Definitions of sousveillance

There are 2 main definitions, which are approximately equivalent, but each capture slightly different aspects of sousveillance:
  1. Inverse surveillance: to watch from below;
  2. Personal experience capture: recording of an activity by a participant in the activity. There is already a certain legal precedent for audio sousveillance, e.g. "one-party" recording of telephone conversations enjoys greater legal protection than recording by a person who is not a party to the conversation. In most states, audio surveillance is illegal, but audio sousveillance is legal.
Various references that define sousveillance in further depth:

Additional references that have evolved since the time that the above article was written: