Another way to fight Big Brother

Sousveillance is turning the lens - and the tables - on the watchers

Watching Amy Winehouse lash out at Glastonbury this year (YouTube brings out the worst in me), I was surprised by the number of cameraphones the star had thrust in her face by the front row of the Pyramid Stage crowd. When your fans start treating you as badly as the paparazzi do, is it any wonder you crack?

This column has written a lot about surveillance, but in a world of cheap, portable technology, there is also sousveillance.

Sousveillance, or "watching from underneath", counters the unblinking eye in the sky with millions of tiny blinking ones belonging to each one of us. In the surveillance society, or so the theory goes, sousveillance is the tool of the surveilled, keeping a watchful eye on the watchers.

The term was coined by Steve Mann, a Canadian computer science professor whom the Globe and Mail called "the world's first cyborg", thanks to his penchant for using wearable web cameras to record and broadcast his every move. That was back in the Nineties - it took the invention of the cameraphone for the rest of us to catch up. This month, I watched a video uploaded by someone who had been subject to a random stop-and-search at Waterloo Station under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act and who captured the incident on his cameraphone (watch it at video/203590). One man's experience of a chillingly routine exercise in security is as powerful as any parliamentary debate in bringing home the realities of an encroaching police state.

Several recent news stories have an element of sousveillance, from Brian Bender leaking fuel top-up plans by talking too loudly on a train to Caroline Flint letting slip the not-so-good news on the housing market by posing, confidential briefing notes in hand, in front of some very high-powered digital cameras. OK, so the former incident was less about technology and more about the astute ears of a media executive. But a few days earlier, the political blogger Guido Fawkes had reported news of a similar nature, this time involving a junior minister. A reader of the blog (, finding himself sitting near said minister, gleefully emailed Guido the contents of the minister's chat with his adviser (they were discussing what quotation to give the Mirror on the political scandal of the day). Guido republished the juiciest bits. By the time the minister had got off the train, his off-the-record comments had hundreds of readers.

For thinkers such as David Brin, author of The Transparent Society, technological advance makes the surveillance society inevitable, and sousveillance - together with equal access to all surveillance footage - is a kind of antidote. Although there's no wrong in shining a light into the dim corners of power, if we could also find a way to put a stop to the rapid growth of surveillance from above, that would be the best of both worlds.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 01 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The truth about GM food

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide