Saturday, April 11, 2009

Surveillance Has Become a Two-Way Street

The erosion of public privacy by the spread of closed-circuit surveillance cameras has been a vexing problem in recent decades. Many years ago it was estimated that a downtown worker in Vancouver was recorded on tape an average 13-times every day. Police and security agencies have become fond of the electronic eye but not so much any more. Now that the citizenry is armed with cell phone video cams, it's the police who are often falling prey to video surveillance. Think Robert Dziekanski. There's even a term for it - "sousveillance." From The Guardian:

Who watches the watchmen? Or, to translate Juvenal another way: who polices the police? The answer this week was a New York fund manager, of all unlikely superheroes, who provided the Guardian with key footage of the minutes leading up to the death of Ian Tomlinson during the G20 protests in London. The man came forward because "it was clear the family were not getting any answers".

If there is anything to feel optimistic about today, perhaps it is the hope that we are witnessing the flowering of an effective inverse surveillance society. Inverse surveillance is a branch of sousveillance, the term coined by University of Toronto professor Steve Mann, and it emphasises "watchful vigilance from underneath", by citizens, of those who survey and control them.

Not that turning our cameras on those who train theirs on us is without risk. Indeed, one might judge it fairly miraculous that the man was not forcibly disarmed of his camera phone, given that it is now illegal to photograph police who may be engaged in activity connected to counterterrorism. And as we know, everything from escorting Beyoncé to parking on a double yellow while you nip in to Greggs for an iced bun can now be justified with that blight of a modern excuse - "security reasons".

Yet it will by now have dawned on even the most dimwitted Met officer that it is increasingly impossible for them to control the flow of information about their activities - to kettle it, if you will - no matter how big their army of press officers putting out misleading information in the immediate aftermath of any event may be.

1 comment:

Comrade One said...

My Son told me upwards of 20 cameras were installed in his high school this week, and that school is one of the good ones in the area. Although circumstances may warrant this in some way, it just doesn't sit well with me.

Having trouble fitting it in my time warp.