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 CitizensontheWeb.com.
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
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
Such one sided (biased) ``evidence'' is perhaps worse than no ``evidence''
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
One of the fundamental contrasts between free democratic societies and
totalitarian systems is that the totalitarian government
[or other totalitarian organization]
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.
Thus increasing ``security'' may actually increase terrorism, rather than
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
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.
- a taxicab passenger photographs the driver,
or taxicab passengers keep tabs on driver's behaviour;
- 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 exits, etc.).
Certainly the benefits of sousveillance are obvious:
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:
- good drivers, professors, teachers, government officials, and police
welcome sousveillance because it ensures their integrity;
- bad drivers, professors, teachers, government officials, and police
- sousveillance is necessary to prevent crime, corruption, terrorims, etc.
- building sousveillance infrastructure into a government, a police force,
military, or the like, will ensure integrity, and ensure that surveillance
- societies with surveillance only (e.g. no sousveillance) are unstable
and tend toward totalitarianism (e.g. overthrow of government,
or takeover, martial law, etc.);
Bring additional persons to observe and document your observations as this may
help prevent the eruption of violence.
- 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.
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:
- the 1800 numbers on the back of trucks so other drivers can
report ``how am I driving'';
- evaluation of a professor by the professor's students;
- questionnaires given to shoppers by management, to ask about
their satisfaction with department store staff,
Out-of-band sousveillance is often necessary when inband sousveillance
- taxicab passengers videotaping the driver and documenting the driver's
illegal driving habits;
- customers photographing unsafe fire exits in department stores
and reporting to the fire marshall;
- citizens videotaping police brutality and sending copies to news media.
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
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).
Definitions of sousveillance
There are 2 main definitions, which are approximately equivalent,
but each capture slightly different aspects of sousveillance:
Various references that define sousveillance in further depth:
- Inverse surveillance: to watch from below;
- 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.
Additional references that have evolved since the time
that the above article was written:
"Sousveillance": inverse surveillance in multimedia imaging",
Proceedings of the 12th annual ACM international conference on Multimedia,
New York, NY, USA, Pages: 620 - 627, 2004,
"Continuous lifelong capture of personal experience with EyeTap",
keynote address, ACM International Multimedia Conference,
Proceedings of the 1st ACM workshop on Continuous archival and retrieval
of personal experiences (CARPE 2004), New York, New York, Oct. 15, 2004,
p.1 - 21
"Existential Technology: Wearable Computing Is Not the Real Issue!"
Leonardo, MIT Press, 36(1), 2003, pp.19-26