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December 30, 2002

Pointing Back At Poindexter
World Sousveillance Day puts the spycam in your hands.

Does Washington's new interest in "total information awareness" warm your heart? Do you think John Poindexter has a right to monitor your email and track your purchasing habits? If so, then you probably did not participate in this year's World Sousveillance Day (WSD).

WSD (which falls on Dec. 24) draws its inspiration from the premise that ordinary people endure too much video surveillance in public places. The best way to protest this, according to Steve Mann, a WSD organizer, is by balancing the surveillance ("observing from above," in French) with some judicious "sousveillance" (which translates roughly as "observing from below"). Mann is a professor on the faculty at the University of Toronto's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. In order to see how sousveillance works in practice, I joined Mann in marking this year's WSD at Toronto's Eaton Centre (a large underground shopping mall).

According to Ronald Deibert (another WSD organizer who also teaches at the University of Toronto), this is WSD's fourth year. The idea, he says, is not just to "raise awareness about the increasing proliferation of all forms of surveillance - not just of video cameras." Deibert is director of the Citizen Lab, which studies how individuals can use "applied activism" (like sousveillance) to promote democracy and human rights.

An ideal sousveillance operation consists of at least two people. One team member (perhaps the braver one) should march up to a shopping mall security camera, and repeatedly photograph it. This leads to the appearance of what Mann facetiously calls "models" who want you to take their photograph as well—but not models like Naomi Campbell or Heidi Klum. He means the kind of models found inside every mall in North America, wearing rent-a-cop uniforms and muttering into two-way radios. These models will (we hope) want to question the first team member about his interest in security cameras.

That's when WSD should become hilarious—the rent-a-cops fumble to find a way to justify the privacy rights of a video camera, even as that camera erodes the right of law-abiding shoppers to their anonymity. (Incidentally, that's also when the second team member must begin taking photographs—just in case the rent-a-cops get out of control.)

Mann's book Cyborg: Digital Destiny and Human Possibility in the Age of the Wearable Computer, co-authored with journalist Hal Niedzviecki, details an experiment where he entered different stores wearing a hidden camera. He writes: "Whenever I found myself in a store [with surveillance cameras], I asked management why they were taking pictures of me without my permission. They would typically ask me why I was so paranoid and tell me that only criminals are afraid of cameras...Then I would pull an ordinary camcorder out of my satchel and give them a chance to define themselves." Not everyone reacted well to this—Mann claims he was once "physically assaulted and unlawfully detained" by gas station attendants after taking out his camcorder. He cites this as an example of the way "the same people who claimed that only criminals were afraid of cameras had an instantly paranoid (and sometimes violent) reaction" to the idea that he had recorded their actions.

Fortunately, I witnessed no violence during WSD 2002. Indeed, much to my surprise, no one at any of the stores Mann and I visited looked askance at the professor's head-mounted camera, or got upset about the frequent flashes emanating from the digital camera he wore on his chest. This lack of response probably says something about the current state of North America's economy—no clerks at the stores we visited seemed to want to risk alienating a potential customer. They may have ignored Mann's sousveillance of their stores because they believed it was a means to facilitate a transaction (more on that in a moment), rather than a form of unauthorized monitoring.

As our WSD action began to fall flat, we even tried to provoke a confrontation. Mann boldly photographed a sign that explicitly prohibited photography within the mall—but no "models" appeared to take this blatant attempt at sousveillance as bait.

Of course, malls aren't the only places you can find surveillance cameras these days. Spycams are increasingly present at underpasses, bus stops, parks, intersections and other areas of a broadly defined "public space." Sousveillance in one of these locations would put you in touch with civil authorities who, unlike retailers, don't feel any need to be nice.

Mann used this year's WSD to try out an idea he calls Web Ramps—a kind of surrogate shopping system intended to assist disabled people. Web Ramps works as follows: An able-bodied person equipped with a head-mounted camera, a cellphone and a digital camera browses through store merchandise, all the while speaking to a disabled person at a remote location. The surrogate shopper can transmit pictures of the merchandise he's inspecting, and can similarly relay information about prices. Wireless technology allows the shopper to act as a sort of "wheelchair ramp," in Mann's words, in order to help a disabled person to make desired purchases. Mann demonstrated Web Ramps to me by visiting several jewelry stores, and communicating with a friend of his who wanted to buy a gold necklace as a present for her daughter. Mann relayed questions from his friend to store clerks and passed their answers back to her—in addition to sending her photos of the different necklaces the stores had in stock. We weren't able to find a winning necklace, but the contrast between using technology to spy on shoppers and using it to provide people greater freedom and access was striking.

For his part, Ronald Deibert hopes WSD will provoke people to "think about the consequences" of the "anti-terrorist legislation passed all over the industrialized world" in the wake of September 11. "The regulations, in many cases, are poorly thought out," he believes—and could have what he calls "detrimental consequences." He says that both Canada and the U.S. need a debate about "the balance [we want to strike] between security, surveillance and privacy" as the War on Terror moves ahead. Regular, year-round acts of sousveillance could help spark that debate.

Neil Hrab lives in Toronto, Canada, and is an editorial writer at the National Post.