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Privacy Hero of the Month:
World Sousveillance Day

On December 24, while most of America was last-minute shopping and/or celebrating Christmas Eve with family, others were answering the ancient question, Qui custodies custodient? - Who watches the watchers? - by asking another -- If not us, who? If we don't do it, who will?

This is the spirit of World Sousveillance Day, which encourages the watched to grab their cameras and record the cameras that record the comings, goings and doings of millions or billions of people all over the globe each day. The etymology of the word, as given by one of its founders, Steven Mann, is a twist on the French roots of "surveillance," meaning to "watch over;" "sousveillance" instead means "watching from under."

Mann's announcement of World Sousveillance Day 2002 says the purpose of the day's activities is to "call into question the growing and dehumanizing effects of increased video surveillance, automated face recognition, and Covernment (Corporate+Government) tracking." Now, many might rightly point out that this may very well involve trespassing and/or breach of contract. This is a fair criticism. But one cannot dismiss the disturbing trend of purportedly-private-sector databases being turned over to government agencies. From the grocery card database incident to the announced intentions of the Total Information Awareness Program, corporate databases are increasingly being used, abused, and archived by government agencies.

Sousveillance can be broadly understood also as a critical element of market regulation, empowering consumers rather than bureaucrats to keep rogue businesses in line. Think not only of the 1-800-HOW'M-I-DRIVING stickers on trucks, but of more sophisticated methods such as the consumer feedback ratings posted on eBay or Amazon. It's the photo negative of the "blacklists" of bad-check writers more commonly kept by area merchants when banks were local and ATM/debit cards a thing unknown.

Sousveillance can also be seen as an answer to the assymetric information problem caused by the extreme secrecy of the "Covernment." It is worth noting, after all, that societies where the state operates in secrecy and gathers information on everyone else have historically suffered far more "terrorism" than those societies where the opposite held true.

And speaking of Total Information Awareness, it's worth noting the other big Sousveillance project of December -- what has come to be known as "Total Poindexter Awareness." Retired Adm. John Poindexter, erstwhile head of the Information Awareness Office and founder of Total Information Awareness, has had his address and phone number published in newspapers and all across the Internet, satellite photos of his neighborhood posted online, and a website taking on reports of personal sightings of the man at Christmas parties and shopping malls. Some of Poindexter's cohorts at IAO were swept up in the fun as well. Apparently, the good folks looking to record everything we do don't appreciate the sousveillance. Phone numbers have been changed, and staff bios removed from the IAO website (they ditched the scary logo as well).

So, all those activists out there who help us understand that information-gathering need not be a one-way street, and who bring to the streets awareness of the growing problems with a surveilled society: consider yourselves Privacy Heros of the Month.

The Privacy Villain of the Week and Privacy Hero of the Month are projects of the National Consumer Coalition's Privacy Group. Privacy Villain audio features now available from FCF News on Demand. For more information on the NCC Privacy Group, see www.nccprivacy.org or contact James Plummer at 202-467-5809 or via email.

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