Sousveillance: Wearable Computing and Citizen “Undersight”

When Canadian police tasered Robert Dziekanski –- a man who had arrived in Vancouver International airport in October 2007 from Poland – it was not the surveillance cameras that helped bring the incident to light. It was witness Paul Pritchard who captured the killing on his camera phone. Dziekanski was tasered at least twice and then beaten by police.

This is but one example of citizens capturing their ordinary day-to-day life activities and uncovering crimes that have previously escaped capture by surveillance that looks only “from above.” Clearly, there is value in looking in all directions — an ordinary citizen can round out the perspective provided by surveillance cameras by watching people “from below” with a simple hand-held camera phone.

Sousveillance – the inverse of surveillance – is the general activity of an individual capturing a first-person recording of an activity from his or her own perspective as a participant in the activity.  Rather than watching "from above," the French “sous” means “under” or “from below.”

This is “undersight” rather than oversight – looking upwards from below.

The SenseCam
To make a continuous capture of day-to-day activity, in the early 1990s I invented, designed, and built a neck-worn capture system containing various sensors as well as a camera having a fisheye lens. Here is a picture I took in 1998 of this invention:

This camera had various sensors in it, along with retroactive recording capability so that, for example, it could begin recording from 15-minutes-ago when it detected a slip-and fall event, and was part of a CyborGLOGGING (“glogging”) effort I started before the days of blogging (presently at

In 2004, Gordon Bell invited me to present this work as the opening keynote address at a gathering where he brought together researchers interested in working on Continuous Archival and Retrieval of Personal Experience (Carpe) (See Resources Below)

Microsoft is currently manufacturing a version of this neck-worn camera invention, called the SenseCam (currently a research project. Not available to consumers.)


Here’s an example of a video diary created with a SenseCam:

While camera phones and similar portable technologies make capturing incidents like Dziekanski’s death possible by the average citizen, new integrated technologies such as the SenseCam, electric seeing aids, visual memory aids for the elderly, and Personal Safety Devices (PSDs) that record our entire lives have the potential to alter radically our notions of personal protection –- and also keep those "higher up" honest and informed. These technologies include wearable, implantable, and body-borne computing devices. PSDs in particular can also provide cheap life insurance by functioning like the "black box" flight recorder on an aircraft in case of a personal incident.

Surveillance: Watching from Above
Eye in the Sky - Photo credit: Steve MannThe movie P2 will make you squirm in your seat – you’ll probably never again enter a parking garage alone. A businesswoman is pursued by a psychopathic security guard who’s been stalking her on Christmas Eve in an underground parking garage using his network of surveillance cameras. After securing the doors to the garage, the guard rapes and then tries to kill her. Security cameras and remote-control security locks all serve to reduce her actual safety from higher-up, even as they give her a false sense of safety from down-below.

Surveillance literally means (in French) "to watch over” or “to watch from above." In particular, “sur” is French for “over” or “from above”, and “veillance” comes from “veiller” which is French for “to watch”. Thus the literal English translation of “surveillance” is “oversight.” This is watching average citizens from on high.

You can think of surveillance and oversight as looking downward from a ladder. Surveillance often involves police watching citizens from the higher rungs of the ladder, while examples of oversight include a police chief watching his or her officers, or a higher government body watching over the police chief. Surveillance keeps you and me from stealing a loaf of bread, while oversight helps to keep politicians and police from being corrupt.

Sousveillance: Watching from Below
If surveillance is the view from the higher rungs of the ladder, what is the view from the lower rungs? Would things have gone differently for the woman in P2 if she had a camera phone or SenseCam to record the incident and potentially broadcast directly to "higher ups" such as police or some other form of security?

Sousveillance is a form of “reflectionism,” a term that describes the use of technology to mirror and confront bureaucratic organizations. Reflectionism holds up the mirror and asks the question: “Do you like what you see?”

Reflectionism becomes sousveillance when it is applied to individuals using tools to observe the organizational observer. Sousveillance focuses on enhancing the ability of people to access and collect data about their surveillance and to neutralize surveillance.

Sousveillance is not counter-surveillance or anti-surveillance – rather, it is a relatively new and growing phenomenon that has arisen despite –- and in parallel with –- surveillance.

SenseCams - Photo credit: Steve MannSousveillance involves more than citizens merely photographing police, shoppers photographing department store clerks, or passengers photographing the cab drivers who drive “YOU WILL BE PHOTOGRAPHED” taxicabs. Rather, sousveillance is the recording of an activity by a participant in the activity, without necessarily having or involving any political, artistic, or ethnomethodological agenda.

For example, one day a cab driver may be a passenger in someone else’s cab, or a store manager may be a customer at another store. It’s not the goal of sousveillance to divide the world into the watchers and the watched-watching-back – rather; the goal is to recognize that both surveillance and sousveillance can co-exist.

The Blair Watch Project (not to be confused with the 1999 movie The Blair Witch Project which also used personal recording devices) is an example of such undersight. The Blair Watch Project was a citizen’s initiative by the UK newspaper The Guardian to encourage people to keep tabs on the UK’s former Prime Minister Tony Blair using cell phones and digital cameras as he campaigned around the UK.

This is one form of sousveillance –- watching-from-below at the lower rungs of the ladder. A more recent example is the use of camera phones, email, and the Internet during the Iran elections. Iranian citizens risked their lives to capture the massive unrest in the streets of Tehran after the seemingly fraudulent elections of 2009 and to communicate to the rest of the world in digital images. The State-run television did not carry this coverage, and all foreign journalists were banned from the streets even as the surveillance cameras rolled.

The widespread adoption of sousveillance technologies is inevitable. Moreover, when people start wearing remote monitoring system as a personal safety device, it may actually reduce both the real and the perceived need for people to carry self-defense weapons like guns or pepper spray. Cellular telephones are already being promoted as "weapons" against crime. This trend suggests a possible balance-of-power in which police carry guns and citizens carry cameras (and call the police if necessary), rather than the surveillance-only society with police having both the guns — and the cameras that can pry into private matters, possibly when no crimes are being committed.

Undersight –- watching people from below — involves at least four different, but interrelated, types of sousveillance:

1. Prosthetics
2. Insurance
3. Equiveillance
4. “Alibi.”

Let’s take a look at each of these in turn:

EyeTap - Photo credit: Steve MannSousveillance: Prosthetics
Given the growing demographic of elderly people with increasingly foggy memories, many might consider something akin to a visual hearing aid –- a visual memory aid consisting of a wearable camera and portable computer system.

The University of Toronto is involved with various projects to invent such assistive technologies for people with special needs, for example, laser EyeTap electric eyeglasses help people to see better. When combined with a wearable computer that provides supplementary visual information to its wearer, the computerized eyeglasses can also help Alzheimer’s patients and others to remember things better. This is known as a Visual Memory Prosthetic (VMP).

Sousveillance: Insurance
A communications prosthetic or PSD for special-needs individuals and the elderly will help them communicate better with others and also help protect them from violence. It does the following:

  • keeps a record of what happens,
  • makes it obvious to the perpetrator that there are remote witnesses (not merely a local recording that can be seized or destroyed by the perpetrator) and,
  • facilitates a real-time discussion with a remote entity.

Some insurance companies are even willing to provide PSD users with reduced life insurance premiums. With connections to large Health Management Organizations (HMOs), insurance companies are in a unique position to provide a "Safety Management Organization" or SMO built upon a similar concept –- using the same call center as the HMO –- to patch into a network of prosthetically-enhanced “cyborg” users. In this way, an at-risk person uses the system to establish a connection to the insurance company’s call center.

Here are two example scenarios:

Officer:“Put your hands above your head."
Remote Call Operator:“The person you are talking to is hearing-impaired…”
Officer:“Are you recording this?”
Remote Call Operator:“The person you are talking to is wearing a computerized visual memory aid. For quality control and training purposes, your interaction with him is being transmitted and recorded at our remote offices. If you have any problems with this, please contact ABC insurance company at 999-999-9999. May we be of assistance? How can we help you?"

Sousveillance: Equiveillance
Surveillance implies a kind of social contract in which actions are recorded by an organization, and in which we may be held accountable for these actions. The third type of sousveillance –- also known as "equiveillance" –- posits that whenever our actions are being recorded by another entity, we are entitled to a copy of these recordings for our own use as evidence in support of our situation. For example, if you’re accused of shoplifting, you presumably have access to the store’s surveillance recordings through the process of discovery. However, in practice, the store may only keep portions of the recordings that they deem relevant or that support their side of the argument.

Equiveillance is best understood by analogy to a written contract in which both parties keep a copy of their agreement. This helps to prevent one party from falsifying the contract, or –- for example –- simply omitting inadvertently the last page of the contract or one of its schedules. It’s not necessary that both parties keep a copy of the contract for this practice to be effective. If one party were to throw away or lose their copy, but did not tell the other party of this disposal or loss, the other party would likely remain honest, because he doesn’t know whether or not another copy existed.

Similarly to equiveillance, a shopkeeper might not falsify her own surveillance data –- edit it, change it, or selectively delete from it – if she knows there is a possibility that some shoppers might have recorded some of the happenings in the store themselves.

It is not necessary for everyone to wear a camera in order to prevent falsification of surveillance data. It is simply enough for some people to wear cameras some of the time. One person wearing a visible electric seeing aid – even if it didn’t remember (that is, “record”) – opens up the possibility of a dishonest person being caught, even if he or she did not know whether or not the seeing aid had memory capability.

Sousveillance: "Alibi"
Hasan Elahi, a professor from Rutgers University, was detained at Detroit Airport after the owners of a storage locker he rented in Florida reported (incorrectly) that an Arab man had fled on September 12, 2001, leaving explosives in his locker.

New integrated technologies such as the SenseCam, electric seeing aids, and Personal Safety Devices (PSDs) that record our entire lives… alter our notions of personal protection.

After being investigated by the FBI, and undergoing nine polygraph tests, he was “cleared” of any wrongdoing (“cleared” is in quotes because he was never charged with anything). Professor Hasan used online records to prove his innocence, by way of recordings of his whereabouts, in order to show the falsity of the allegation. To avoid similar future problems he uses his cell phone as a tracking device to report his movements on a map, as well as broadcast somewhat live (uploaded daily) images as he travels around the world. The result is a photographic record of his daily life which is difficult to falsify. Originally he only sent this data to the FBI. Now, by broadcasting it, the data has the added validity of being harder to falsify. It’s difficult to fake that much data, especially when there are so many witnesses. Elahi’s work is a good example of sousveillance, as it operates in the public sphere, in contrast to surveillance –- which typically operates in secret.

Elahi’s activity can be thought of as “Alibi” sousveillance.  Alibi sousveillance is a form of sousveillance activity aimed at generating an alibi as evidence to defend against allegations of wrongdoing.

Protecting ourselves at the individual level should be seen as being as important –- if not more important –- as protecting our buildings. You can think of clothing as a “building” built for a single occupant. It’s only natural that the personal architecture of the human body deserves as much or more technological protection as merchandise or products. And who better to look after our own safety than us as individuals.

Here are some predictions concerning sousveillance and the protection of the individual:

Prediction #1: Sousveillance will arise naturally as we replace failing memory with wearable technology.
Just as buildings are automated, and this automation leads naturally to – and is integrated with – surveillance, putting “intelligence” (wearable computing) onto people will give rise to widespread sousveillance.

Prediction #2: To the extent that communications prosthetics result in decreased overall risk – or risk perceptions – sousveillance will become the expected social norm.
In much the same way that good risk management practice includes surveillance of buildings, the same will be true of people’s protection of their own personal spaces.

Prediction #3: Surveillance and oversight will become less necessary when there is sousveillance.
Increased availability and miniaturization of cameras and wearable computers will make surveillance less necessary. If everyone remembered (recorded) everything, there would be little need for surveillance.

Prediction #4: A sousveillant society will be a society with less corruption.
Where there is widespread sousveillance, corruption will be either impossible or at least very difficult. While surveillance locks the basement doors, sousveillance locks all the doors. A security program without sousveillance is not real security.

As Above, So Below
Consider this double-entendre: “Oversight-only is an oversight on our part.”

What’s missing (but implied by) the words “oversight-only” is that the watchful supervision comes from above. Watching only from above is an error or omission (an “oversight”) on the part of our citizenry. If we the people only watch from above –- to use the basement analogy, simply locking the basement doors –- we might miss observing certain very important occurrences. We also need to watch from below – and remember to lock the upstairs doors as well.

While oversight is supposed to be the citizen watchdog that watches the watchers –- for example, the congressional oversight committees that in theory oversee the U.S. government –- the reality is that oversight committees are not always totally independent of the political interests of those they watch over.

Sousveillance technology such as the SenseCam, electric seeing aids, visual memory aids for the elderly, and Personal Safety Devices (PSDs) empowers individuals and protects personal spaces. Let’s not make the oversight of forgetting “undersight” –- we need to watch both from below and above.

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  1. April 30, 2014

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