Sousveillance Turns the Tables on the Surveillance State

Who watches the watchers? You.


Narrative Clip
Narrative Clip

The Narrative Clip is a digital camera about the size of a postage stamp that clips to one's breast pocket or shirt collar and takes a photo every thirty seconds of whatever one's seeing. The photos are uploaded to the cloud and can be accessed on demand with a smartphone app, making it easy to look up any moment in one's life. When the project to mass-produce these cameras first hit Kickstarter, I knew I had to have one, and with any luck mine will be arriving in a couple of weeks.

The prospect of having a complete photographic record of my life is compelling for many reasons. I have a terrible memory, especially for faces, so it will be interesting to see if this device can help. There are also moments in life that would be great to relive, but that one can't–or one doesn't know one should–be photographing. Narrative's Instagram feed has some good examples of these. But most importantly, I want to help hasten our inevitable sousveillance future.

Sousveillance is the recording of an activity by a participant in that activity, and it can be thought of as the inverse of surveillance. The word "sur" in French means "over" or "above," hence surveillance is "watching from above" or "overseeing." The word "sous," by contrast, means "under" or "below." To date, "veillance" has only been available to the powerful–whether through corporate or government CCTV cams perched atop buildings or utility poles–but with the advent of cheap wearable computers we will all soon be able to point a camera back at the powers that be from below.

Being monitored in everyday life has become inescapable. So, as David Brin points out in The Transparent Society, the question is not whether there should be pervasive monitoring, but who will have access to the data. Will it only be the powerful, who will use the information to control? Or will the rest of us also be able to watch back?

Ideally, perhaps, we would all be left alone to live private lives under no one's gaze. Short of halting all technological progress, however, that ship has sailed. Mass surveillance is the inevitable result of smaller cameras and microphones, faster processors, and incredibly cheap storage. So if I can't change that reality, I want to be able to watch back as well.

Luckily, it increasingly looks like the sousveillance ship has also already sailed. When Kodak first introduced cameras cheap and portable enough that almost anyone could have one, public photography still gave people the creeps, and you would have been seen as quite strange to carry around a camera. Today, you're seen as odd if you don't carry an Internet-connected camera with you wherever you go. As a result, sousveillance-based accountability is increasingly commonplace–from George Holliday's videotape of Rodney King being beaten by L.A. police in 1991, to the cell phone video of a UC Davis campus police officer pepper spraying Occupy protesters at point-blank range twenty years later.

Sousveillance will only become more consequential as wearables like the Narrative Clip make recording an always-on phenomenon. In Russia, where police and traffic courts are unreliable if not completely corrupt, dash-mounted cameras are a virtual necessity for motorists. As a result, these always-filming cameras have caught on tape not just phenomenal car crashes, but also suicide bombings and meteor strikes.

Yet wearables will no doubt meet resistance as they become widespread. While sousveillance may be a check on surveillance, it also means pointing the camera at each other, and this makes many uncomfortable. Google Glass is a wearable device that is not constantly recording, and has a mere four-hour battery, but that hasn't stopped banks, hospitals, casinos and schools from banning the device. Yet these are the kinds of institutions that have surveillance systems trained on us that we have come to accept.

No one captures this paradox better than Surveillance Camera Man, an anonymous Seattle man who confronts people in public places with a video camera in a series of panic-inducing YouTube videos. When his invariably annoyed subjects ask him what he's doing, he responds, "I'm just taking a video," pointing out that it's no different from the videos being taken by the many CCTV cameras around, which they don't seem to mind.

Obviously, Surveillance Camera Man's confrontational style accounts quite a bit for the reactions he gets. And indeed Google Glass's head-mounted, always-pointing-at-you design probably has something to do with the reception it's garnered. (I imagine that the more discrete Narrative Clip will fare better.) But despite his in-your-face attitude, Surveillance Camera Man has a point.

He's showing people that they've become comfortable with being recorded from above, something to which they don't take kindly at eye level. Surveillance Camera Man's argument seems to be that we should be just as upset about the proliferation of surveillance as we are about his antics. Yet what he might be capturing is the end of an era. Humans are nothing if not resilient, and it's more likely that we will adapt and become as comfortable with sousveillance as we have with surveillance.

As Narrative Clips and Google Glasses (and whatever Apple is working on) begin to proliferate, It won't be long before Surveillance Camera Man finds a camera pointed back at him.

NEXT: Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's TV Show Premieres Tonight

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    1. Nice. Fucked up situation. Mother and son made some bad choices, but for a cop to shoot at a fleeing van full of children should be grounds for immediate dismissal, and possibly charges.

      1. For a cop to shoot at a fleeing van full of children should be grounds to stake him out on the nearest superhighway, during rush hour, and broadcast it on PBS.

        Officially, that is. That the necessary officials won’t do any such thing is bad, but not – YET – an excuse for DIY.

      2. That video is a perfect example of a cop losing his shit when someone won’t respect his authoritah. Watch him go apeshit when they lock themselves in the car. You can see that he just cannot allow them to not do what he says. Even if that means smashing in windows while little children scream in fear.

        An adult–a professional–would have calmed the situation down or allowed them to get away and just take down the license number. But instead it all gets massively escalated.

        1. The woman was stopped for speeding and then took off for a 100 mph chase. She then resisted arrest and her son assaulted the officer. I hate cops as much as the next guy but other than the one idiot shooting I don’t see they did anything wrong.

          1. Well, it’s New Mexico. Maybe she clenched her buttocks.

    2. It oughta be a law that cops can’t use deadly force on someone who originally commited a misdemeanor.

  1. Short of halting all technological progress, however, that ship has sailed.

    I believe the ship is under steam power now.

    1. Nuclear is technically steam power, so yes.

  2. “…we will all soon be able to point a camera back at the powers that be from below.”

    Until recently, a prosecutable offense. I am not so sure it isnt still.

    1. It has to actually make it to trial, along with the video. When your dead and your SD card removed and destroyed, the situation is more complex. Officer safety. Procedures were followed. Funeral on the 19th.

  3. $279 plus $9/month feels high for a capability that’s already built into all newfangled space phones.

  4. Im making over $7k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life. This is what I do,,,,,


    1. What kind of jobs?

      1. Spamming comment sections on


        (I’m kidding you so don’t be offended.)

  5. OT:

    Late to HnR today so this may have been covered. But interesting take by Town Hall columnist on conservatives blaming libertarians. Plenty of sarc & cardboard cut-out ideas but also interesting main point:…..s-n1746487

    1. As conservatives, we should avoid blaming others when we don’t succeed. That’s what liberals do.

      Haven’t even read past, this article is well-written and truthful.

      Sure to be a lot of pissed-off team red folks after reading this article.

      1. It’s neither well written nor thoughtful.

        Basically, it’s one long screed about how some Libertarians are too wonky and hung up on minutiae to support conservatives (but could be convinced to vote Republican), and some are only interested in pot and sex (the latter of which they don’t ever get) (I suppose these are Eric Dondero Libertarians).

        Then he complains that the best way to avoid the rise of big government is to vote for the less stasist of two choices. Funny, for my entire life that has meant watching government grow bigger and more intrusive as everyone from Reagan to Obama decree 11 their new 9 and dialed government up to their new version of 11.

        tldr, Libertarians suck; we should make fun of them if they are too stupid and sex-deprived to vote for our big-government whores.

        And they wonder why the Democrats are competitive in elections.

        1. Just schills for big stasi.

        2. I get the criticisms here. My interest was the idea that “hey, stop blaming others and deal with our shortcomings.”

          1. Well, perhaps the dude should have written an article about their shortcomings and how to overcome them instead of ranting how Libertarians don’t get laid.

            You know how people often couch and attack on freedom of speech by saying “I believe in freedom of speech, but…”?

            That’s what that article was. He says “I don’t believe in blaming others” before writing an essay on how everyone else sucks.

            It’s so pathetic that it’s funny.

            1. Ron Paul keeps talking and “our eyes would glaze over”. Of course. Rational thought always short-circuits a Republican “brain”.

        3. It’s neither well written nor thoughtful.

          You’re right. I read past. Reason needs a “delete” option. The article didn’t go where I thought it was going. At all.

    2. “They also see foreign policy much differently than traditional interventionist Republicans..”

      I don’t even… what… I … I … the revision of history is strong in this one.

  6. SCM FTW. Great find!

  7. Just because I can’t do anything about the CCTV cameras doesn’t mean I don’t hate them. Anyone with Google Glass or the sousveillance type equipment is not welcome near me and sues if brought into my house.

  8. I’m left wondering, so what?

    How does looking back at the looker do me any good at all?

    Anyway, the observer is at the end of a long wire, or radio beam and I’d never get to see his face.

    What’s the point?

    1. It could just be a cop at the end of a gun barrel who wants to take you to the hospital to search your digestive system against your will.

  9. Oh oh, egg all over my face. Please don’t call me stupid because I know I am.

    I wrote that before I watched the video clip

    1. If you know that you’re ignorant, then you’re the opposite of stupid. “I do not know” is the first stage of wisdom.

      1. I thought that “what the fuck is this?’ was the first…

  10. for a moment I thought the cabby was touching himself.

    1. you may not have been wrong…

  11. My life is too boring for me to care. SIGH!

  12. Until I read the definition, I thought “souseveillance” had something to do with watching drunks.

    1. you may not have been wrong

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