Rethinking Privacy: Google Glass Harassment & The Coming Age of Sousveillance
A lack of transparency results in distrust and a deep sense of insecurity.” – Dalai Lama
A woman was recently accosted at a bar in San Francisco for wearing Google Glass, and while I can sympathize to a certain degree with those disgruntled patrons who had not agreed to be recorded while out in public, I cannot help but wonder: do these same individuals share a similar sense of outrage over the illegal monitoring and recording of all our digital data by the NSA? Many view Glass as a further intrusion of privacy, and as wearable/recordable tech becomes increasingly ubiquitous we are probably going to start seeing signs like these popping up in stores and restaurants all over the place.
This tech will force us to reconsider previously held notions of “public versus private” and that is not necessarily a bad thing, but another question worth asking might be: could this tech – when used responsibly – potentially help us to regain some sense of equilibrium and empowerment against the current surveillance state? Some companies, like FreedomPop, are hoping to fight back against the NSA by providing phone services which will guarantee “secure and anonymous voice, text and data communications”. This kind of encryption technology definitely seems like a step in the right direction, but what else can we be doing? By turning the cameras around on those who are doing the observing, are we fighting for a world of accountability and transparency or are we simply giving up more of our privacy?
Surveillance vs. Souseveillance
David Bollier has written a fantastic piece about sousveillancehere, in which he discusses two new essays by Steve Mann, a “pioneer of wearable computing” and coiner of the term sousveillance. Mann describes sousveillance as such:
We now live in a society in which we have both “the few watching the many” (surveillance), AND “the many watching the few” (sousveillance). Widespread sousveillance will cause a transition from our one-sided surveillance society back to a situation akin to olden times when the sheriff could see what everyone was doing AND everyone could see what the sheriff was doing. We name this neutral form of watching “veillance” – from the French word “veiller,” which means “to watch.” Veillance is a broad concept that includes both surveillance (oversight) and sousveillance (undersight), as well as databeillance, uberveillance, etc.
It follows that: (1) sousveillance (undersight) is necessary to a healthy, fair and balanced society whenever surveillance (oversight) is already being used; and (2) sousveillance has numerous moral, ethical, socioeconomic, humanistic/humanitarian and practical justifications that will guarantee its widespread adoption, despite opposing sociopolitical forces.
Bollier then discusses several other key terms which Mann has also coined: “When surveillance and sousveillance are both treated equally – a more appropriate state – one can say that there is ‘equiveillance.’ More typically, however, there is ‘inequiveillance.’ If there is only one party consenting to the veillance, there is ‘univeillance,’ and if an absentee, non-participant records some or all parties while at the same time forbidding them from recording themselves, there situation can be described as ‘McVeillance’ – the unilateral ‘sensory entitlement’ that many business establishments assert over their premises. Mann also suggests that people may want to start using new ‘counterveillance’ technologies to detect and neutralize surveillance cameras. They could be worn on clothing as ‘spite fashion’ or ‘spitewear,’ if only as a social commentary. The point, he argues, is that we should all have ‘the right to sensory integrity.’ Everyone should have ‘a basic right to the data generated by their own senses.’ “
This last point is incredibly important, and lawyers are already speculating about whether or not the meta-data which is collected by the NSA can be used as evidence in court.
Sousveillance as Social Contract
To formally legalize this right, Mann and a colleague, Wassell, actually drafted a proposed law for the “policy, practice and enforcement of personal sousveillance.” Among the rights that the law would protect: the right of people to “capture video recording of their personal space for self protection and accurate records in any public place (including restaurants); even establishments that ban such practice.”
Mann suggests that the use of veillance technologies ought to follow the norms of contract law. If one party is using a veillance technology, then another party ought to be entitled to use their own counterveillance technology to record an interaction – just as any contract requires two informed, consenting parties. If the surveillance party prohibits or discourages people from sousveillance – which amounts to a copy of the “veillance contract” – then a court of law should regard the surveillance recordings as inadmissible evidence in any future proceeding – just as a contract produced by one party, without a countersigned copy, would be inadmissible.
To make this idea more practical, Mann has actually developed a fully functional “Wearable Wireless Webcam” for sousveillance, also known as “lifeglogging.” While I’m not sure I want all of my life’s interactions recorded like some airliner’s black box, I sympathize with Mann’s complaint that the exclusive right of unilateral veillance should not belong to property owners alone. The idea of a “social contract” must be honored in some meaningful fashion, especially as it becomes clear that one-sided surveillance powers can and will be abused.
Mann also gave a fantastic TED talk called Wearable Computing and the Veillance Contract: