Privacy

Poking the Camera's Eye

Total surveillance awareness

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Who watches the watchmen? One possible answer: We all should. This answer animates World Sousveillance Day (WSD), which took place on December 24. (Sousveillance is a neologism meaning "sight from below" or "undersight").

On that day, citizens all over the nation were supposed to approach public surveillance cameras and aim their own cameras back at them. The idea is that if the cameras can't be eliminated, all of us "below" should at least be keeping our eyes on those "above" who are keeping their eyes on us.

The idea originated with Steve Mann, a University of Toronto computer engineering professor famous for turning himself into a cyborg. As his Web site, wearcam.org, puts it, Mann is "the first person to live in total constant intimate contact with the computer" and "sees the world as images imprinted onto his retina by rays of laser light."

WSD has been picked up by a variety of organizations and individuals, creating a decentralized, Internet-based movement. It is hard to know how many people are participating, but some version of the event has been promoted since 1998.

Reporter Neil Hrab accompanied Mann on his WSD mission in Toronto and wrote about it for reason online. While many WSDers anticipate interference from the guardians of the surveillance cameras, Hrab had a different experience.

"No one at any of the stores Mann and I visited looked askance at the professor's head-mounted camera," he wrote, "or got upset about the frequent flashes emanating from the digital camera he wore on his chest." No one harassed them even for photographing a sign declaring that photography was forbidden.

Another group critical of surveillance cameras is the New York-based Surveillance Camera Players (SCP), which raises public awareness by staging guerrilla theatrical performances in front of such cameras. But the SCP doesn't buy the notion of "sousveillance." Comments an SCP spokesperson, "The logic of 'shooting back' is faulty. It's like guns: Arming everyone doesn't protect us against the police. We want everyone disarmed, of both their guns and their cameras."

The SCP hasn't been as lucky as Mann was on his WSD excursion this year. Guards at Rockefeller Center once threateningly informed their troupe, "You know, we can watch you everywhere you go." "Precisely the point of our performance," the SCP spokesperson says.