Rethinking Privacy: Google Glass Harassment & The Coming Age of Sousveillance

PIC: Antonio Zugaldia (CC)

PIC: Antonio Zugaldia (CC)

“A lack of transparency results in distrust and a deep sense of insecurity.” – Dalai Lama

A woman was recently accosted at a bar in San Francisco for wearing Google Glass, and while I can sympathize to a certain degree with those disgruntled patrons who had not agreed to be recorded while out in public, I cannot help but wonder:  do these same individuals share a similar sense of outrage over the illegal monitoring and recording of all our digital data by the NSA? Many view Glass as a further intrusion of privacy, and as wearable/recordable tech becomes increasingly ubiquitous we are probably going to start seeing signs like these popping up in stores and restaurants all over the place.

This tech will force us to reconsider previously held notions of “public versus private” and that is not necessarily a bad thing, but another question worth asking might be: could this tech – when used responsibly – potentially help us to regain some sense of equilibrium and empowerment against the current surveillance state? Some companies, like FreedomPop, are hoping to fight back against the NSA by providing phone services which will guarantee “secure and anonymous voice, text and data communications”. This kind of encryption technology definitely seems like a step in the right direction, but what else can we be doing? By turning the cameras around on those who are doing the observing, are we fighting for a world of accountability and transparency or are we simply giving up more of our privacy?

Surveillance vs. Souseveillance

David Bollier has written a fantastic piece about sousveillance here, in which he discusses two new essays by Steve Mann, a “pioneer of wearable computing” and coiner of the term sousveillance. Mann describes sousveillance as such:

We now live in a society in which we have both “the few watching the many” (surveillance), AND “the many watching the few” (sousveillance). Widespread sousveillance will cause a transition from our one-sided surveillance society back to a situation akin to olden times when the sheriff could see what everyone was doing AND everyone could see what the sheriff was doing. We name this neutral form of watching “veillance” – from the French word “veiller,” which means “to watch.” Veillance is a broad concept that includes both surveillance (oversight) and sousveillance (undersight), as well as databeillance, uberveillance, etc.

It follows that: (1) sousveillance (undersight) is necessary to a healthy, fair and balanced society whenever surveillance (oversight) is already being used; and (2) sousveillance has numerous moral, ethical, socioeconomic, humanistic/humanitarian and practical justifications that will guarantee its widespread adoption, despite opposing sociopolitical forces.

Bollier then discusses several other key terms which Mann has also coined: “When surveillance and sousveillance are both treated equally – a more appropriate state – one can say that there is ‘equiveillance.’ More typically, however, there is ‘inequiveillance.’ If there is only one party consenting to the veillance, there is ‘univeillance,’ and if an absentee, non-participant records some or all parties while at the same time forbidding them from recording themselves, there situation can be described as ‘McVeillance’ – the unilateral ‘sensory entitlement’ that many business establishments assert over their premises. Mann also suggests that people may want to start using new ‘counterveillance’ technologies to detect and neutralize surveillance cameras. They could be worn on clothing as ‘spite fashion’ or ‘spitewear,’ if only as a social commentary. The point, he argues, is that we should all have ‘the right to sensory integrity.’ Everyone should have ‘a basic right to the data generated by their own senses.’ “

This last point is incredibly important, and lawyers are already speculating about whether or not the meta-data which is collected by the NSA can be used as evidence in court.

Sousveillance as Social Contract

To formally legalize this right, Mann and a colleague, Wassell, actually drafted a proposed law for the “policy, practice and enforcement of personal sousveillance.” Among the rights that the law would protect: the right of people to “capture video recording of their personal space for self protection and accurate records in any public place (including restaurants); even establishments that ban such practice.”

Mann suggests that the use of veillance technologies ought to follow the norms of contract law. If one party is using a veillance technology, then another party ought to be entitled to use their own counterveillance technology to record an interaction – just as any contract requires two informed, consenting parties. If the surveillance party prohibits or discourages people from sousveillance – which amounts to a copy of the “veillance contract” – then a court of law should regard the surveillance recordings as inadmissible evidence in any future proceeding – just as a contract produced by one party, without a countersigned copy, would be inadmissible.

To make this idea more practical, Mann has actually developed a fully functional “Wearable Wireless Webcam” for sousveillance, also known as “lifeglogging.” While I’m not sure I want all of my life’s interactions recorded like some airliner’s black box, I sympathize with Mann’s complaint that the exclusive right of unilateral veillance should not belong to property owners alone. The idea of a “social contract” must be honored in some meaningful fashion, especially as it becomes clear that one-sided surveillance powers can and will be abused.

Mann also gave a fantastic TED talk called Wearable Computing and the Veillance Contract:

9 Comments on "Rethinking Privacy: Google Glass Harassment & The Coming Age of Sousveillance"

  1. BuzzCoastin | Mar 10, 2014 at 3:44 pm |

    it’s very clear no one likes being stared at
    and it’s abundantly clear that surveillers
    don’t like or want sousveillance
    der homeland gov is now stalking its subjects
    like a rabid peeping tom
    because the technology demands they do
    they & wee are technology’s play things

    • Virtually Yours | Mar 10, 2014 at 4:51 pm |

      “why? because the technology demands they do they & wee are technology’s play things” This is an interesting point but I don’t know if I agree. This kind of tech is just an advanced tool and – like all tools – it does not care whether we use it to create or destroy. The potential for both is there, but the tool itself does not dictate the course of action which is then taken by the user. We need to start taking responsibility for our own actions, but that should also include asking ourselves why we created the tool in the first place and whether or not the risk of destruction potentially equals and/or outweighs that of creation: “You were so concerned with whether or not you could, you didn’t stop to think whether or not you should…”

  2. Part of this is a class issue. The beta Google Glass device is a $2400 piece of conspicuous consumption in a time where conspicuous consumption is an increasingly bad idea for people who can’t afford private bodyguards.

    The next generations of wearable augmentation gear will be inconspicuous or even invisible and will be affordable. And I suspect that they’ll be useful enough that they’ll have the same kind of adoption that smartphones have now. Low end devices will look like sunglasses with wide temples housing electronics. High end devices might be neural implants.

    The discussion of personal privacy in an age of sousveillance is one we do need to have now. Perhaps the answer will be “there’s an app for that”, the app driving a bluetooth “don’t watch me” signal that will blur one’s image when recorded on random augmentation devices.

    But on the basis that these tools will be in the hands of the many, not a few Google “glassholes”.

    • Virtually Yours | Mar 10, 2014 at 4:36 pm |

      “The next generations of wearable augmentation gear will be inconspicuous or even invisible” They are already working on contact lenses and once those are perfected and on the market (and yes, hopefully affordable to more people than not) you will pretty much have to assume that everything you do is potentially “Live!” and being viewed by countless others. Could this knowledge potentially stop some crimes before they are committed? Would a man attempt to rape a woman or a small child if he knew that there was a strong possibility that they might be wearing such tech? It seems like this could also be quite helpful when it comes to monitoring the actions of those in positions of power/influence/responsibility (e.g. police officers, soldiers, politicians, stock brokers, etc.)

      “the app driving a bluetooth “don’t watch me” signal that will blur one’s image when recorded on random augmentation devices” What a great idea! Get a patent on that shit and me thinks that you will be all set 🙂

      “But on the basis that these tools will be in the hands of the many” This is key…absolutely! People can choose to abstain from participating if it makes them uncomfortable, but they still need to know that they have the choice available to them, should they ever change their mind…

  3. “Do these same individuals share a similar sense of outrage over the illegal monitoring and recording of all our digital data by the NSA?”

    Yes. Yes they do.

    Next (bleedin’ obvious) question…?

    • Virtually Yours | Mar 14, 2014 at 5:55 pm |

      So then what happens to this shared sense of communal outrage when it is not being directed at individuals like this woman? She represents an easy target but if they truly had the courage of their convictions, then they should also be protesting in front of the NSA headquarters and/or the White House. The point I was attempting to make is that it is hypocritical (though admittedly all too human) to blow up over something when confronted with it face-to-face while remaining aloof/nonchalant about the very same issue simply because it lurks quietly and unseen within the depths of our digital devices.

      • Don’t get me wrong, I totally agree; I was being slightly facetious in my original post. Speaking for myself, whilst being equally enraged by state-level surveillance, the fact remains that it will always be easier to blow up in someone’s face when they’re wearing Google Glass or similar (and doubtless I will one day, but have yet to actually see a pair “in the wild”) simply because they are tangibly right there in front of me. (And why not?)

        It’s a shame, but unless something is right in someone’s face, it often gets sidetracked or shunted into the too-hard basket. I could shout at my phone or laptop, in the hope (fear?) that they were listening, I suppose, but how would I know if my words had any effect? At least confronting someone with those ridiculous glasses I know I’m making at least one person (and possibly anyone within earshot) have second thoughts about whether or not to buy/wear them.

  4. Joseph Green | Mar 13, 2014 at 9:25 pm |

    ha, the biggest myth consumers are being sold by internet corporations is
    of a digital utopia – but utopias never end up good. wearable devices
    will socially normalize ubiquitous surveillance. bottom line, getting
    permission is the basis of any free and civil society, without consent
    there can be no liberty.

    • Virtually Yours | Mar 14, 2014 at 6:14 pm |

      “wearable devices will socially normalize ubiquitous surveillance” At that point, though, it will no longer be “sur” (the few watching the many) but “sous” (the many watching the few). Whether or not that is a good or bad thing is up for discussion/debate, and thus I posted this piece in the hopes of stirring up some sort of constructive conversation…

      Because – like it or not – this sort of future seems all but inevitable at this point (barring a major solar flare or some other similar catastrophe) and it will force us to confront and address these issues. Personally speaking, I would like to live in a world where neither veillance is necessary, but as long as we have one kind then it does seem like it will be necessary to have the other in order to maintain balance, equity, and transparency.

      “bottom line, getting permission is the basis of any free and civil society, without consent there can be no liberty” Did you read alizardx’s idea for a blurring app? Very interesting! Otherwise, me thinks we are going to have to declare veillance-free zones and figure out the how that’s gonna work…

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