Looking Back at Big Brother

By Sebastian Mallaby
Monday, July 18, 2005

Steve Mann's Web site features many pictures. Mann in an MIT sweatshirt (the photo is captioned "Early 1990s"). Mann in the same MIT sweatshirt (this time captioned "Mid 1990s"). Mann always with a basement-dwelling, "Wayne's World," slacker-hacker aura. But the point of these pictures is what Mann has on his head: a futuristic visor, an assemblage of electrical components and stray wires, a beetle-like antenna. Once, when Mann tried to board an Air Canada flight with all this gear, he was pulled aside and searched. Electrodes were pulled out of his chest so naturally he sued, alleging discrimination against "cyborgs."

"I know there are a lot of people out there who will read this and say 'This doesn't affect me, I'm not a cyborg,' " Mann told Canada's National Post in 2002. "But the way I was treated by Air Canada, it could happen to anyone."

Indeed. These days, as Mann warned us, any airline traveler risks being searched, and the London bombings look certain to bring a new level of surveillance. Suddenly security cameras are everybody's favorite fix: Mayor Tony Williams has promised more in Washington, and Sen. Hillary Clinton has demanded more in New York. The London authorities, who already have cameras up the wazoo, are considering X-ray scanners that reveal weapons and bombs and, regrettably, all else under your clothing.

So, following the cyborg, should we revolt? Or, to borrow a phrase for which this cyborg has become known, should we counter surveillance with sousveillance?

I'll explain sousveillance in a minute. But first a quick primer on the security-camera debate, which is rife with dodgy claims from both securocrats and libertarians.

The securocrats assert that installing cameras everywhere is bound to make you safer. Actually, the evidence is oddly inconclusive. As Jeffrey Rosen reports in his book, "The Naked Crowd," the best empirical studies of closed-circuit TV cameras suggest that they do reduce crime in parking lots but don't have much effect in city centers and mass transit systems. Terrorists, as opposed to ordinary criminals, are especially unlikely to be deterred: Suicide bombers want their martyrdom to be recorded. So although cameras may help to catch the plotters behind the London bombings -- a very significant contribution, if this turns out to be the case -- their advantages aren't as clear as you'd imagine.

Meanwhile, the libertarian argument is also problematic. It's a bit weird to support a law while simultaneously opposing modern tools to enforce it: Do those who oppose police cameras to catch speeders or drivers without safety belts want to control irresponsible driving or don't they? If they do want to enforce laws, why do they think modern technology threatens civil liberties more than traditional police methods? If the police are looking for a terrorist, would you rather that they detain hundreds of innocents for questioning, wasting taxpayers' money and the suspects' time? Or would you rather that biometric scanners checked the irises of passersby until the terrorist is located?

The libertarians prefer traditional police techniques because they sense that new technology is "creepy." This suspicion goes back to George Orwell's "1984," in which the spying screen on the wall is the instrument for crushing liberty. Libertarians think of new technology as something that governments possess and governments abuse: wiretaps, satellite photography, programs that survey your Web browser and e-mail. But this image of technology is too one-sided. Technology often empowers individuals to hold government accountable.

Hence the cyborg's insight. Surveillance comes from a French word that means "watching over." Sousveillance is an invented Frenchism that means "watching from under." Mann's point is that technology contains its own answer to the big-government danger that it creates. The government watches over you via the Internet; but the Internet empowers citizens to watch back. The government gets surveillance cameras. Citizens get sousveillance camera phones. For every new high-tech government security program, there are a dozen new technology-enabled nongovernmental movements.

Some examples of technology checking government came up at the first "International Workshop on Inverse Surveillance" in April, which Mann helped to convene. (Aside from being an eccentric, Mann, a professor at the University of Toronto, is a pioneer in the field of wearable computers and an all-around technology seer.) A video camera held the L.A. police accountable when it captured the beating of Rodney King. A photographer exposed the cost of the Iraq war by capturing pictures of American soldiers returning in coffins from the Persian Gulf. Ubiquitous cameras explain how the torture images of Abu Ghraib saw daylight. In the future, when a government accuses someone of wrongdoing on the basis of footage from surveillance cameras, that government better get it right. Chances are the same incident will have been captured by private citizens on camera phones, whose manufacturers expect to sell 186 million units this year.

The proliferation of electronic eyes is probably inevitable, but that's no reason to despair. Governments will watch citizens, but citizens will watch back. More likely than not, the balance of power will shift in favor of the citizens, the inverse of Orwell's prophecy.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company