Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Seminar 1 - Transparency Today: Exploring the Adequacy of Sur/Sous/Veillance Theory and Practice

Welcome to the DATA-PSST! blog. Our first seminar is on 6th January 2015 at Bangor University, but participants are eager to get the debate underway sooner. So we’re kicking off here.

Our participants have been asked to assess whether academic studies on surveillance and sousveillance are adequate to the task of accounting for transparency practices today. How useful are theories on:
-       Surveillance – watching from a position of institutional authority/’watching from above’/’oversight’;
-       Sousveillance – watching from a position of minimal power/ ‘watching from below’/’undersight’;
-       Veillance – mutual watching both from above and below?

A central question that has arisen as participants construct their Position Statements, is whether there is an artificial opposition between surveillance and sousveillance scholars, given real world developments. Are we still in a surveillance society (as epitomized by whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations of intelligence agencies’ mass surveillance of their own suspicionless citizens’ digital communications)? Have we moved to a sousveillant society, epitomized by mass participation in social media, the rise of wearable media and mutual life-sharing (‘personal sousveillance’) through to attempting to hold power-holders to account by providing evidence of wrong-dong, as in leaking (‘hierarchical sousveillance’)? Is it more accurate to simply talk about a veillance society – ie one of mutual watching? Or is this to ignore the forces of power (secret or obscure laws, secret intelligence-sharing agreements, government payments to technology companies) that permeate, shape and re-appropriate the social, the cultural and the communicative landscape? Where in Steve Mann's Veillance Plane does contemporary society lie?

If both surveillance and sousveillance are strong forces in practices, then what of privacy? Opinion polls tend to suggest that the British public is not too bothered about their privacy, or state surveillance, as long as it protects their own security. Several months after Snowden’s leaks, a YouGov poll in October 2013 finds that only 19% of the British public think that the British security services should curtail their surveillance powers. A TNS poll from January 2014 finds that 64% of the British public thinks that British intelligence agencies should be allowed to access and store the internet communications of criminals or terrorists by monitoring the communications of the public at large. Polls also suggest that the British public is divided about the merits of the Snowden leaks. A YouGov poll in April 2014 finds that while 46% of British adults think it is ‘good for society’ that newspapers reported on the Snowden leaks, 31% don’t know, and 22% think it is ‘bad for society’.

Given this state of affairs, we might also ask why the polls indicate that the British public is largely OK with mass surveillance and minimal privacy? At what point did this happen, and why? And is this remotely healthy?


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Vian, in answer to your question "whether there is an artificial opposition between surveillance and sousveillance scholars" simply reading the 8 position statements there's a very clear 50/50 split that divides the 8 of us exactly in half:

    These four are on the topic of (Sur/Sous/Veillance):
    Dr Yvonne McDermott, Bangor University
    Ronan Devlin (Artist) & Jamie Woodruff (Ethical Hacker)
    Prof. Steve Mann, University of Toronto
    Vian Bakir.

    These four have no discussion or even mention of sousveillance:
    Dr Lynne Williams, Bangor University
    Planet Labs, San Francisco
    Dr. Justin Schlosberg, Birkbeck, University of London
    Prof. Kirstie Ball, Open University

    It would be great to understand why the academic community is so sharply divided.

    By the way, our article came out in Forbes yesterday: