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Keeping watch now goes both ways
Special to The Times
Concerned about Big Brother watching you?
Why not watch back?
With cameras getting smaller and cheaper all the time, and showing up on everything from cellphones to lapel pins, round-the-clock surveillance is becoming available to average citizens.
As much as some may recoil against the thought, experts headlining a four-day conference in Seattle said yesterday putting one's own life on record could prove the best defense against growing government and corporate incursions into privacy.
Speaking at the Association for Computing Machinery's Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference, Steve Mann termed the process "sousveillance" — pronounced soo-veillance and roughly French for "to watch from below" — in contrast to surveillance, or to watch from above. In general, the term refers to using a wearable or portable video camera to record your every action.
Using sousveillance, conference panelists said, police-brutality victims or protesters at a rally would be able to record illegal actions taken against them by police.
With a wireless camera and connection, the images could be transmitted in real time over the Internet, a protection in case police moved to seize or destroy the equipment, said Mann, a University of Toronto professor who has pioneered use of wearable computing devices, including cameras and digital eyeglasses.
Both examples drew from real-life events: the notorious Rodney King incident in which King was beaten by Los Angeles police officers in a scene captured on amateur video and, more recently, videos used by protesters arrested at the 2004 Republican National Convention to later prove their innocence, resulting in a dismissal of charges.
Countless other scenarios exist, from airport-security checks to international border crossings.
Ultimately, tactics like sousveillance could lead to "an increase in the professionalism and effectiveness" of law enforcement, said David Brin, author of "The Transparent Society."
"I'm not a radical against secrecy," said Brin, who also writes science-fiction novels. But authorities will always use secrecy as a shield against accountability, he added.
Sousveillance poses its own set of thorny issues. An attendee from Quebec said provincial law there prohibits photographing someone without his or her knowledge. And sousveillance practitioners using a restroom "might want to point their cameras toward the wall," Latanya Sweeney, a Carnegie Mellon associate professor, suggested somewhat puckishly.
In cases where both parties are recording, neither might feel comfortable engaging even in informal conversation, some panelists noted. As an example, Simon Davies, director of Privacy International, recalled asking a presidential candidate if he ever could speak candidly about anything. The candidate acknowledged that he felt under "constant surveillance."
"For him, the idea of private conversation was gone," Davies said.
Some foresee a possible balance between sousveillance and surveillance called "equiveillance," where different constituencies work together toward security as well as accountability. Davies suggested that citizens working with law enforcement would preserve freedom better than opposing surveillance.
"A 'technological canopy' should be a last resort," Davies said.
Sousveillance does not have to carry a political agenda, conferees noted. Microsoft has a project called Continuous Archival and Recording of Personal Experience, and HP and Nokia sponsor similar looks at the outgrowths of constant recording, first theorized by technology pioneer Vannevar Bush in a 1945 essay describing a device called the "Memex."
The conference, which runs through tomorrow at the Westin in Seattle, is dubbed "Panopticon" after a prison design by 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham, where a central tower monitors inmates who never know for sure if they're being watched.
To underscore the theme, tote bags with blinking dome cameras were handed out, some of which were monitoring live via a wireless video connection. Attendees were not told if their camera was activated to convey "what it feels like to be under possible round-the-clock scrutiny," as one coordinator put it.
There were a couple of bugs in the system, however. The camera battery gave out after a couple hours. And the 2.4-gigahertz wireless-surveillance network conflicted with the conference's Wi-Fi service, leading coordinators to shut it down in deference to annoyed attendees who could not access the Internet.
Paul Andrews can be reached at email@example.com
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company