Day 805: Smile, You’re Always On Candid Camera

originally published March 15, 2014

Right this very minute, unless you’re in your own home with the windows blacked out, under three layers of blankets with aluminum foil insulating every crook of the room, you are being watched. Perhaps not actively watched by anyone with a pulse, but there are electronic eyes everywhere. City streets, public parks, the women’s change room at the YMCA (that one comes courtesy of my creepy neighbor, Lester), this has become the status quo in our world.

There are ways to protest this, if your fiery angst is so inclined. You can wear a plastic mask so you won’t be recognized. You can carry a can of black spray-paint and give every electronic eye you see a permanent lid. If you’re feeling particularly fiendish, you can rig up an electromagnetic pulse and disable every camera (and computer and electronic device, including pacemakers) in the mall before you walk through the doors.

Or you can strap a camera to your paranoid self and start watching the watchers. This is known as sousveillance – and it’s not merely a form of protest. It can also be a form of vigilante spying, an elaborate means of establishing one’s innocence, or simply a way to creep people out. Especially if you dress up like this guy:

The word ‘surveillance’ comes from the French: sur meaning ‘over’ and veillance meaning ‘looking as you scratch your junk’. ‘Sous’ means under in French, so you can define sousveillance as watching back under the nosy eyes of those who are watching you. Sousveillance involves a camera – and a microphone if you so desire – attached to a person, capturing that person’s perspective.

Right away there are legal questions that pop up like hungry moles in search of a whack. Stores have every legal right to watch you sift through their merchandise, so strapping a camera to a mobile security guard could be viewed as a more thorough extension of that. But what about those of us who aren’t operating a business? The general parameter here appears to be found on the same page as phone recording rules. In most US states (and Canada, as long as it’s not intended for profit) you can record a phone call as long as one party involved (probably you) are aware of it. So in sousveillance terms, you can’t poke your wrist-cam through a shelf of books and eavesdrop on someone else’s conversation, but you can probably wander around with a camera recording your own interactions.

The reasoning for doing something like this goes beyond making a statement by weirding out security guards and managers at Radio Shack. We are living in a time of mandated accountability, when everyone possesses the ability to inexpensively document the world around them. Sousveillance is little more than a smartphone’s camera, taken to the next level.

When David Ollila was stuck for four hours aboard a grounded Comair plane in 2007, he thought he’d use the intrusive glare of a camera to get answers. He was trying to interview the pilot, and wound up getting hauled off the plane by police for questioning as a result. We tend to behave differently, not only when we know we are being recorded (like I said, that happens almost everywhere), but when someone is personally connected to that camera. And for those who use sousveillance in politically charged situations, that’s exactly what they’re counting on.

When protestors tweaked up the volume at the North American Leaders Summit in Montebello, Quebec in 2007, sousveillance made the front page. As the demonstrators gathered, the chief of police insisted there was no police presence. An easily leaked sousveillance video proved that to be a lie. Then when he backpedalled, claiming there were police there but they were merely peaceful observers, that same video was used to point out that the cops were wearing masks, boots, and in one case holding a rock.

This isn’t meant to resolve the dispute between the protestors and the agencies of law enforcement. The video in this case is only meant to dispel misinformation. And while a sousveillance video can be manipulated to refract reality through the prismic fluids of its holder’s choosing, so can the surveillance video that belongs to the other side. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. It’s still a mess, but at least with sousveillance it’s a more balanced mess.

Then we have the astoundingly bizarre conundrum of Hasan Elahi. Mr. Elahi is a Bangladeshi media artist and also an associate professor at the University of Maryland. He’s also on the FBI’s terrorist watch list. To be clear, Mr. Elahi is not an actual terrorist, but somehow the FBI was tipped off that he might have been packing a heap of explosives on a flight to Detroit. He was detained and questioned, and exonerated of any wrong-doing. But now he was on a list.

In response to this madness, and in hopes it might dissuade the feds from making this mistake again, or worse yet shipping him off to Guantanamo Bay on a whim, Mr. Elahi began to document his life. He has posted tens of thousands of photos to his website, sousveilling his interactions, his purchases, even his breakfast. He travels often for his work, and phones his local FBI field office before every trip to ensure there won’t be any hiccups. For him, sousveillance is his alibi – evidence of a non-threat.

The strongest argument for sousveillance is that a camera attached to a human is – in theory – being operated by someone who can be ascribed responsibility for the recording, as opposed to a camera stuck on a pole, which just is. I would agree, though it should be pointed out that a sousveillance recording is also subject to the bias of the operator. Pointing out the lies of the police chief in Quebec is one thing, choosing not to film the rocks in the protestors’ hands is another.

I’m not saying that’s how it went down, I’m only arguing that a hand-held (or forehead-held or whatever) camera is not evidence of an unfettered, objective truth.

But sousveillance has also ensured we can capture the spontaneity of the world like never before. Our constant need to duck-face into a camera lens has enabled the capture of the 2013 meteor over Russia by many angles, the suspects milling about the finish line just before the bombing at the Boston Marathon, and even that haunting video of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center on 9/11.

It might instill a feeling of unease to see someone recording their surroundings at every turn, but there’s something to be said for a more balanced mess.

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