• Stef Will

Sousveillance - watching the watchers

I am sure you are all aware of the term surveillance. The UK, where I live with my family, has for many years been called one of the world’s foremost surveillance states, allowing the authorities to spy on its own people to a degree unprecedented for a so-called western democracy (although I am under no illusion that this worrying practice is limited to the UK by any means…). Amnesty International writes, “Mass surveillance on such an industrial level is unlawful, sweeping aside our right to privacy and to free expression”.

And it got much, much worse in the past couple of years, when the powers that be essentially abused the Covid crisis to dial up surveillance and control measures to even more extreme degrees, conveniently presented under the guise of ‘for our own safety’.

And while I am sure we are all aware of the term surveillance, have you heard of sousveillance?

While surveillance (‘sur’ from ‘above’ in French, and ‘veiller’ as in ‘to watch’) is the practice of the powerful monitoring people under their dominion, sousveillance (‘sous’ is French for ‘below’) means ‘to watch from below’, i.e., us the people watching the authorities.

The term ‘sousveillance’ was coined by Steve Mann from the University of Toronto in 1998, in response to the far-reaching abuse of the surveillance state. Sousveillance occurs for example when people record their encounters with the police, also enabled by technological advances such as small recording devices. Thinking about our current world, it was the practice of sousveillance that exposed the shameful police brutality during the recent Trucker protests in Canada.

Steve Mann writes: “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. 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’.”

Ignoring this systemic (and rising) abuse of surveillance is not an option. That’s why I decided to explore the subject matter of surveillance power structures in my Fine Art MA final year project. However, rather than sousveillance, my work employs what I call ‘peer-veillance’ to investigate and illuminate the topic. What I allude to when I say ‘peerveillance’ is the growing practice of asking ordinary people to spy on their peers, i.e. neighbours, friends, even family, on behalf of the authorities. In that sense peerveillance is a (particularly sad) extension of surveillance and control. Remember, when we were asked by the police to report neighbours who did not adhere to the ‘Rule-of-6’ during Christmas 2020?

You will hear much more about my final year project as it progresses, but for today, I just wanted to introduce you to the concept of peerveillance, as for this project I have been performing surveillance on (unsuspecting) peers I come in contact with in everyday life. I am doing this with the help of a thermal camera as an iconic visual reference to imbalanced surveillance practices. I will leave you with a raw image of one of my ‘subjects’, subject no 101 to be specific, because subject no 101 was unusual, as it was a policewoman, which was a very unnerving experience – watching the watchers...