Every day, we are watched. From cameras on the street and in shops, to officers of the law, and of course the accumulation of data online.

Autor*in Anna Rees, 11.15.16

We have little say in this, but recently the tables have begun to turn. Governments and their delegates are monitored, police are themselves policed; the era of sousveillance has begun.

Sousveillance – from Watched to Watching

The term sousveillance was coined by Steve Mann and describes the opposite of the term surveillance. “Sur”, in French, means “above” or “on” and “sous” means under. Therefore the term surveillance describes a top-to-bottom approach of watching, i.e. the government watching its citizens, and sousveillance denotes the citizens watching the government or officers of this government, such as politicians or members of the police force. There are different distinctions within sousveillance such as undersight, inverse surveillance and alibi sousveillance. This article will deal with the general concept of sousveillance.

Sousveillance is most prominent in cultures where citizens have the technical means to carry out monitoring activities of authority figures and is used as a way for citizens to shed some light on certain issues such as corruption, police brutality and more. For example, Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index provides a clue as to why countries such as India, the Ukraine and Kenya are present on the platform I Paid A Bribe, which allows citizens to report instances (anonymously if they wish) where a government official asked them to pay a bribe. The team behind the platform then uses this data to call for better, fairer governance.

However, even the governments of more politically stable countries can come under scrutiny, such as in Germany. The platform abgeordnetenwatch (MP Watch), for example, can be used to track election promises of members of parliament, how often they did not vote on key issues, and gives the general public an easy way to ask questions directly to their MP.

Developing a Watching Culture

Steve Mann, a Canadian professor of electrical and computer engineering, is considered to be the founding father of sousveillance. Mann took it upon himself to record every activity using a built-in camera in his glasses, long before Google Glass existed. In Mann’s ideal world, everyone would be recording their actions non-stop – deterring crime and creating safe environments via citizens policing each other, as opposed to a ‘big brother’ watching them. Some argue that after an adjustment period, people would grow accustomed to this new way of life, citing the initial uproar and now tolerance of surveillance cameras in many big cities worldwide.

Needless to say, this idea does not sit well with all. Beyond arguments of creating some citizen version of a police state, questions arise as to who controls the data, how would it be stored and how would it be used.

One area of sousveillance that highlights this pro and con aspect is police body cameras. A number of programs have popped up worldwide that see cameras attached to police uniforms in order to properly monitor and minimise instances of police misconduct and brutality. According to a study conducted in California in 2012, “use-of-force by officers wearing cameras fell by 59 per cent and reports against officers dropped by 87 per cent against” 2011. However, the parameters surrounding how this actually works (for example, whether cameras should always be recording or only under specific circumstances) and who manages and stores the data sometimes add to the murkiness of this issue. As this article from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation points out, there are instances where data gathered from body cameras is controlled and stored by police. The issue of who then has access to said data and why is also, in some cases, unclear.

Currently, the most common way sousveillance is used is by ordinary citizens collecting information, photographs and locations of occasions where power is abused or crimes ignored. Prime examples of this are platforms such as: I Paid A Bribe; Bribespot, where people can report encounters with corrupt officials who have asked for bribes; Where My Money Dey, which tracks whether or not a portion of money made off mines Ghana is poured back into the community, as it is supposed to be; Wildleaks, an online whistleblower platform to take down powerful poaching networks and illegal logging operations;, a Tunisian platform where citizens can track government activties like spending; and Zabatak, an Egyptian anti-corruption and anti-bribery platform.

Sousveillance offers a way for citizens to use technology and gather data to help shed light on abuses of power while calling for more transparent governance and legal processes. This offers several advantages to citizens and can help them balance the scales when fighting corruption. It can also enable citizens to engage in a form of vigilante justice, with both positive outcomes and serious consequences.

Renrou Sousou – Taking Justice into One’s Own Hands

Renrou Sousou is a Mandarin term that can be translated as “Human Flesh Search” and describes the activity of looking up other people online, with the intent of naming and shaming them for their actions (similar to the act of ‘doxxing’ or ‘doxing’ someone i.e. searching for and publishing private information about an individual). This phenomenon is prominent in China where notable cases of Renrou Sousou have occurred. In essence, these searches give citizens the opportunity to take justice into their own hands, causing the person in question to lose their job for unethical behaviour, for example, or saving a sexual assault victim from prosecution. However, the potential for abuse is large; there are no restrictions on who might end up being a target of Renrou Sousou and the punishment dealt out by the community may outweigh the actual severity of the crime. 

The phenomenon has given citizens a way to harness more information. As one citizen journalist told the Atlantic: “The cultural significance of flesh searches is this: In an undemocratic country, the people have limited means to get information. Information about [the activities of] public power is not transparent and operates in a black box, [but] citizens can get access to information through the Internet, exposing lies and the truth. It is a kind of asymmetrical means of protest, and in some ways has had good effects.” However, there are other ways to deal with corruption and wrongdoings that focus on the system as opposed to the individual.

One of the rules of I Paid A Bribe is that no names may be mentioned. This ensures that no personal acts of revenge or lynching can occur, effectively fighting the system as opposed to the people in it. While progress does, in this instance, take time, the efforts of I Paid A Bribe have proven fruitful. According to this article from the New York Times, data from the Indian I Paid a Bribe platform was used to usher in reforms in the state of Karnataka’s motor vehicle department. Not only were some staff members cautioned against asking for bribes, the system through which people obtain their driver’s licence was revamped; people can now apply for their licence online and undertake the practical test on an automated track that has electronic sensors and is monitored by cameras, allowing motorists to bypass instances where they may be asked to pay a bribe.

It’s too early to tell whether these initiatives will bring along a systematic change, but with more and more platforms being supported by more and more users, sousveillance seems to be filling an unmet need for many. As technologies that facilitate the movement become more widely accessible, the current legal framework will be tested, and an already long-overdue update on privacy laws will become even more urgent.

Author: Jana Light / RESET editorial

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