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