Disrecognized Space

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Sousveillance: a resistance by any other name

The nature of digital media makes surveillance increasingly pervasive and unavoidable. The connected nature of digital media increases the reach of surveillance both geographically and in terms of data accumulated. Sousveillance is a resistance to this which represents one of a number of ways that can combine to bring surveillance out into the open. This paper will initially explore the nature of digital surveillance and how it differs from previous forms of surveillance, including theoretical reinventions of the concept of the panopticon, before presenting sousveillance as a form of resistance in both theory and practice. Finally, the effectiveness of sousveillance as one of a number of resistant strategies will be evaluated.Digital media makes surveillance increasingly present both in terms of the physical reach and the data accumulated with it – digital surveillance can be omnipresent, invisible and always on (Graham & Wood 2003, p. 228). Clarke in 1998 already noted the increased power created when digital surveillance systems are linked together (Clarke 1998, p. 504), while also warning about the lack of attention to the quality or accuracy of that data (Clarke 1998, p. 506). There is also no (theoretical) limit to the data accumulated, unlike human based surveillance, while data can be stored and automatically searched much faster and more widely. Graham and Wood (2003, p. 228) term this a “step change” in the capabilities of surveillance, which becomes real-time and conducted across wide geographical boundaries (though they also note the crucial importance of social mediation with digital technology). Privacy is decreased through digital surveillance (Tække 2011, p. 442) leading to an ongoing redefinition of the Habermasian public sphere (Lister et al 2009, p. 219) as user surveillance is commoditised (Phelan 2011, p. 140) in what can be seen as a complicit activity condoned by the voluntary disclosure of information (Burgess & Banks 2010, p. 303; Graham & Wood 2003, p. 241). Elsewhere, previously public spaces are becoming privatised, as well as the creation of new “electronic-digital enclosures” (Marx & Muschert 2007, p. 387). Recent and potential developments further expand these changes. We are now surrounded by a multiplicity of computing devices which are linked into a worldwide network (Vertegaal & Shell 2008, p. 277) and such networked surveillance intensifies the evidence producing system, leading to a renegotiation between society and technology about the nature of surveillance (Lauer 2011, p. 578). Nanotechnology makes surveillance devices effectively ‘invisible’ while making biological surveillance of our bodies possible in a form which is internal and “invisible to our own consciousness” (Ganascia 2011, p. 685). These changes create perceptions (real or imagined) that this is a threat. This discourse of anxiety features widely in popular media, such as Norton-Taylor’s report (2012) that digital surveillance in the UK could evade existing legal restrictions, and Keane’s report (2012) on moves in Australia for a “massive expansion of intelligence-gathering powers”.

While surveillance has a long history, modern cultural discussions of it hinge crucially on Foucault’s reading of the panopticon. The design of the panopticon, devised by Jeremy Bentham, enables surveillance to be continuous whether it is actually occurring or not through its conjunctions of architecture, space and (in)visibility (Foucault 1995, p. 200). Such an arrangement actualises the institution of power so that those watched behave as if being always surveilled, extending the physical structure of the panopticon into a cultural and behavioural structure (Foucault 1995, p. 201). Hope (2005, P. 361) points out that the panopticon in Foucault’s sense is not simply about surveillance itself, but the discourses of “disciplinary technology” and the control of individuals. Instead of punishment, the cultural panopticon establishes a disciplinary society which continuously controls and normalises populations (Piñero 2006). The panopticon is now being realised in more powerful digital forms, extending its reach beyond the visual, including into people’s bodies and thoughts (Braman 2006; Ganascia 2011, p. 686; Hope 2005, p. 362) and beyond criminal activity into commercial monitoring (Tække 2011, p. 442). Consumer data collection has become decentralised, automated and networked (Elmer 2003, p. 241). These new panopticons have led to many neologisms to describe their alterations to surveillance (Bossewitch & Sinnreich 2012, p. 10). Ganascia creates the tellingly plural term “Nano-Panopticons” for the networked nature of digital technology, making surveillance information available much more widely while at the same time multiplying the threats to privacy (Ganascia 2011, p. 689). The process of surveillance can be seen as both increasingly pervasive and therefore meaningless. Braman (2006) terms this (after Hookway) the “panspectron”: a place where surveillance takes place continuously without the subject’s knowledge, where data is collected without a purpose until that data is later interrogated in response to a specific question. In the panspectron surveillance is inescapable and performed by algorithms. These various concepts of surveillance/panopticon indicate the multiple entanglements of contemporary surveillance (Marx & Muschert 2007, p. 380). Tække (2011, p. 441) notes how digital media have created a state of disequilibrium requiring the development of new norms: digital media are not neutral but provide the means for surveillance to be observed through them (Tække 2011, p.445).

Digital surveillance, in contrast to previous (non-digital) surveillance, is therefore something new and more far-reaching. Technology creates new challenges for existing understandings of privacy by shifting boundaries between public and private spheres (Boa 2007, p. 333; Tregoning 2004, p. 25); digital surveillance can be invisible; and so much data is gathered it has to be sorted by computers. The possibility for error is increased as the amount of data increases: failure can occur at levels of over one in two cases (Graham & Wood 2003, p. 237). These errors in data assessment can lead to real life consequences such as wrongful detainment (Travis, 2012). Digital surveillance also prioritises some groups, while disadvantaging other groups, but does this without revealing such processes (Graham & Wood 2003, p. 232) since the design of surveillance systems implicitly codify the dominant social perspectives (Graham & Wood 2003, p. 242) – the computer code that implements surveillance simply transfers the author’s prejudices (Macnish 2012, p. 158). These issues can be seen as legitimate reasons to circumscribe and resist the power of digital surveillance.

Resistance to surveillance does not deny that surveillance can often be legitimate, but it does actively question the boundaries and purposes of surveillance. As Bell (2007, pp. 8-9) points out, rather than the technological determinism of autonomous surveillance the social shaping of technology is important, specifically the negotiated relationships that exist within actor-networks, in this case of surveiller, surveilled and digital media. Sousveillance represents a method of resisting the growing prevalence of digital surveillance through social means, aided by technology. Mann, Nolan and Wellman (2003, p. 332) note the ubiquity of modern surveillance and its increasing invisibility. To counter this they use the term ‘sousveillance’ to indicate watching from ‘below’ in contrast to surveillance, or watching from ‘above’. Sousveillance appropriates the tools of the dominant power and uses them against it in order to attempt a rebalancing of power and privilege – ‘reflectionism’ or ‘detournement’ (Mann, Nolan & Wellman 2003, p. 333). It does not attempt to stop surveillance, but rather create an equality through overtly political actions of non-compliance and masking. Mann has described sousveillance as twofold: it can be both ‘hierarchical’ when it surveils authorities such as police, and ‘personal’ when it is used to record personal activities (Mann 2004, p. 620). Among a number of binary opposites between surveillance and sousveillance, Mann has contrasted the former’s Panoptic origins with the latter’s community based origins (Mann 2005, p. 8). Ganascia (2011, p. 689) pertinently notes that sousveillance is an activity of those socially below the watchers, while surveillance is performed by those above. Sousveillance therefore observes the observers as a political and power-inverting act of resistance in an active process, requiring users to recognise their own selves as well as others, and the intrusions that they can be subjected to (Dennis 2008).

Sousveillance can be realised in numerous ways from ‘wearable’ computing to various other strategies, as the following examples demonstrate. Mann, Nolan and Wellman (2003, p. 338) discuss examples of wearable computing (specifically hidden or obvious cameras) as a ‘performance’ to resist surveillance. With the proliferation of mobile phones this form of sousveillance has the potential to be widespread and utilise digital surveillance’s own invisibility. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), for example, makes available a smartphone application that can surreptitiously record video (ostensibly, of police, though there is no reason it is limited to this) and upload the data to a third party (the ACLU – which raises further questions concerning the storing, ownership and use of digital data) (Goodin, 2012). Braman (2006) discusses blogs as a form of ‘voluntary exposure’ or sousveillance, such as the examples she gives of political and news blogging. Lewis (2011, p. 16) describes Wikileaks and social media as sousveillant activities. Bakir (2010, p. 2) discusses the release of torture photographs from Abu Ghraib prison as a successful act of sousveillance. Graham and Wood (2003, p. 244) also list a number of forms of resistance, including strategies that exploit ‘blind spots’ where surveillance is missing, or sousveillant methods such as the “systematic anti-panopticism” of various groups. Hope (2005, p. 367), discussing students at UK schools, noted that multiple strategies were undertaken to circumvent surveillance including sousveillance, whereby some students attempted to hack the school’s systems in order to access restricted information. Social structures are important in this context in determining the functions of surveillance and sousveillance, especially the conjunction of play and resistance – sousveillance articulates a social interaction with imposed disciplinary structures, rather than a frontal assault (Hope 2005, p. 368).

Sousveillance has not stopped digital surveillance, which continues to expand, and therefore could be perceived as a failed experiment especially since it also remains a largely niche activity. Resistance, however, is a multifactorial concept as Barker (2008, p. 432) and Fernback (2013, p. 14) observe. Resistance is not a monolithic act, but a series of repertoires varying in relationships and locations and, as the examples above show, many acts of resistance are ‘sousveillant’ without being overtly given that name. Sousveillance also exists inextricably within the context of surveillance, and is inseparable from it (Fernback 2013, p. 19).

Sousveillance cannot be considered a failure simply because it is not a dominant activity (such a result would indicate it is not, then, a form of resistance) but should be considered one of a number of tactics for countering digital surveillance. Fletcher, Griffiths and Kutar (2011, p. 3) observe that knowledge of surveillance empowers society to change its behaviour in response. Goldsmith (2010, p. 917) comments that policing is challenged by video and social media, since elements which the Police previously controlled are now subject to disruption, while the prevalence of mobile phones makes sousveillance increasingly present (Goldsmith 2010, p. 922). Bakir (2009, p. 14) describes a successful act of sousveillance using a mobile phone (the execution of Saddam Hussein) which undercut the sanctioned official presentation, though he notes this also required mainstream media to take up the story. Elsewhere, however, he notes that Web 2.0 fosters ‘sousveillance cultures’, intensifying sousveillance (Bakir 2010, p. 1). This may well decrease the importance of mainstream media in the process. Sousveillance is often used in conjunction with other ways of resisting surveillance such as encryption and social methods (Hope 2005, p. 369; Graham & Wood 2003, p. 244; Smith 2007, p. 306). Resistant activities (termed ‘tactical media’ by the Critical Art Ensemble (2001, p. 8)) are experiential rather than theoretical, redeploying the dominant paradigm to create new ways of ‘seeing’ that dominance. Resistant activities of all types often use such a multifactorial approach since multiple resistances become more effective than one, easy to suppress, method.

Digital media makes surveillance increasingly omnipresent, always on, invisible and able to gather and store amounts of networked data that no human could do, while at the same time changing definitions of public and private. Sousveillance represents a resistance to this growing digital panopticon in order to reassert autonomy, power and privacy. Sousveillance remains a niche activity but, combined with other forms of resistance, can provide an effective method of achieving such goals, often without being directly described as sousveillance. It forms part of the tactics of perturbation that Braman notes as destabilising digital surveillance (Braman 2006). Mann, Nolan and Wellman (2003, p. 347) comment that sousveillance is not intended to stop surveillance but rather to disrupt it and to make people aware of issues of power imbalances. In this sense, sousveillance is important and effective at revealing the implicit perceptions (or absence of them) regarding digital surveillance and the structures of the new networked panopticons.
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