Roger Clarke - the Privacy Expert

In 1971, I was working in the (then) computer industry, and undertaking a 'social issues' unit towards my degree.  A couple of chemical engineering students made wild claims about the harm that computers would do to society.  After spending time debunking most of what they said, I was left with a couple of points that they'd made about the impact of computers on privacy that were both realistic and serious.  I've been involved throughout the four decades since then, as consultant, as researcher and as advocate.

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Community Policing or Big Brother

police cameras.jpg

1.  Community policing no longer refers to "neighbourhood watch", what exactly is it?

Community policing in the traditional sense can be likened to neighbourhood policing. It’s a policing strategy and philosophy based on the notion that community interaction and support can help control crime, with community members helping to identify suspects, detain vandals and bring problems to the attention of police. Consider it a collaborative effort between law enforcement and the community to identify problems and search for solutions.

Advanced technologies which were once only available to law enforcement and defence personnel are now affordable and commercially available to the every day consumer. So today, we have the capability to conduct “community policing” with a non-collaborative flavour… so what we are witnessing and predicting is that there will be two types of community policing- one which is a collaboration between the police and the community, and another which is entirely community-led, that is policing by the people. It is what we can term sousveillance.

Sousveillance was created in practice by Professor Steve Mann, at the University of Toronto in Canada. And it can be defined as a type of “inverse surveillance” or “counter surveillance”. Plainly it is the “watching of the watchers by the watched; counter surveillance by people not in positions of power or authority.”

We can refer to these individuals as real time auditors of surveillance technologies and of those conducting the surveillance.

2. What type of technology is available to people wishing to spy on others? and what type of people want to spy on others anyway? what are the ethical and legal implications?

There are a whole host of technologies now available to people who “watch”, “spy”, “check up on” others. These include mobile media technologies, like mobile phones that have GPS receivers in them and can track the user anywhere in the globe down to 1-2m of accuracy; there are RFID bracelets or tags used in vehicles or on people such as the ANPR Automated Number Plate Recognition System which uses OCR technology. There are biometrics and even good old CCTV footage that can be used to record people as they move around crowded places etc. Our once bulky and expensive technologies have become miniature and mobile and in some instances can fit on the tip of a ball point pen, or be carried around or attached to belt clips, underbellies of vehicles. There are a whole host of ethical and legal implications such as who has the right to watch another when they are going about their daily business? Who has a right to privacy? to be let alone?  Is it against the law to track another in a public space using technology that is available off the shelf in an overt or covert manner? What does this mean in relation to human rights? Is there anything that can be considered private today?

3. Can this industry be regulated at all or is it too late?

It’s never to late to introduce reforms, but with mobile media that is increasingly becoming pervasive and ubiquitous it might become difficult to police. It is not to say also that someone is not within their right to be taking footage of their surrounds… for instance, a citizen has as much right to monitor their movements, as someone of equal or higher authority… for instance, it is okay for commercial organizations to record everything that happens both inside and outside their building in the name of physical security, but what about the individual?

This is a difficult and complex debate as it all stems from the context. E.g. we come across a lot of signs that tell us we cannot take footage in public change rooms or rest rooms and we should not. But what of other scenarios where you are taking multimedia evidence for your own protection, for your record of events?

There is a web site where there are now over 37K people taking glogs—cyberlogs… where they are taking footage of an event or task within which they are a participant. Is this unethical? It is certainly not illegal? But what if I was an employee of a government department or a large corporation, and wished to conduct sousveillance activities in those buildings? Well, quite possibly I would not have a job… even though trucking organsiations are increasingly making their employees carry automatic loggers and trackers of their rest times, whereabouts, and other details that could be considered personal.

In the UK they have tough laws that do not permit individuals from taking multimedia footage of law enforcement personnel during protests… and in places like the Pentagon you cannot take any footage of the building, save for the heavily surveiled section of the Pentagon memorial to the victims of Sept 11.

4. What are the benefits of community policing?

The benefits of community policing, are diverse if the problem is considered from a variety of contexts…

In the traditional ideal sense of the notion of community policing, having law enforcement personnel closely collaborating with the community is a positive outcome. Change usually happens at the grass roots level, and if the police can establish some rapport with the local community, then the chances are it might actually help reduce crime rates. But this doesn’t mean that all the problems will go away. Where there are organizations that have the best intentions for the community, there are also those who do not and corruption unfortunately can breed corruption.

Some have used the idea of policing the police, watching over the watchers. This cannot hurt… we have all seen footage on television or on Youtube of police not acting in accordance to the law and this has led to some reforms in each of those individual cases.

But the more important matter is one’s right to be taking footage of their own space and to be conducting sousveillance on themselves. If we lose the right to police or record our own activities, then in a way we cease to exist. We all take pictures of our family, loved ones, special events, as a record of our own life… we keep albums at home and home videos…

But community policing when misused can lead to husbands tracking their wives, overprotective parents watching their children by logging on remotely 50 times a day to check where they are, or employers enforcing harsh penalties on employees who do not reach mileage targets for deliveries or other related sales targets based on speed, distance and time factors. There are a whole host of unanswered questions which are not legislated or regulated in the Privacy Act, Telecommunications Interception Act, or even Surveillance Act of Australia.

5. How does dataveillance work?

For some time Roger Clarke’s [30] dataveillance has been prevalent: the ‘‘systematic use of personal data systems in the investigation or monitoring of the actions of one or more persons. Uberveillance is an above and beyond, an exaggerated, an omnipresent 24/7 electronic surveillance. It is a surveillance that is not only ‘‘always on” but ‘‘always with you” (it is ubiquitous) because the technology that facilitates it, in its ultimate implementation, is embedded within the human body. 

The problem with this kind of invasive surveillance is that omnipresence in the ‘material’ world will not always equate with omniscience, hence the real concern for misinformation, misinterpretation, and information manipulation. Uberveillance takes that which was ‘‘static” or ‘‘discrete” in the dataveillance world, and makes it ‘‘constant” and ‘‘embedded”. Consider it not only ‘‘automatic” and to do with ‘‘identification” but also about ‘‘location”. 

Citation: Russell, K. and K. Michael. (2009). "Community Policing or Big Brother?" SBS World View, from

Questions About Uberveillance

When did you coin the word uberveillance?

Symbol designed by PhD candidate Alexander Hayes in 2011.

The word uberveillance, also written as überveillance, was coined in 2006 by Dr M.G. Michael who is presently an honorary senior fellow in the School of Information Systems and Technology. The concept was further developed, defined and expanded together with Dr Katina Michael a senior lecturer in the same school.

The first time the term was used by M.G. Michael was in a guest lecture he delivered on the “Consequences of Innovation” in the course Information Technology and Innovation. Michael and Katina had long been collaborating on the research, description, and trajectory of ‘beneath-the-skin’ technologies within the surveillance space that had the ability to not only identify but locate individuals as well.

The term simply ‘came out’ in a moment of inspiration, when Michael was searching for words to describe the trajectory of embedded technologies. He could find no other but to bring together the German prefix “über” with the French root word “veillance” to describe the exaggerated surveillance conducted by governments in the name of national security. At that very moment he was thinking aloud in terms of Roger Clarke’s work on dataveillance and Nietzsche’s Ubermensch. So it was what you might say one of those incredible moments of serendipity.

In the same year the term appeared in a peer reviewed conference paper on locational intelligence, the IEEE Symposium on Technology and Society, delivered in New York showcasing the potential for 24x7 tracking and monitoring of humans. After also appearing in a volume of Prometheus guest edited by Michael and Katina, on the “Social Implications of National Security,” the term was subsequently used in a national workshop sponsored by the ARC Research Network for a Secure Australia (RNSA). The 2007 workshop entitled: “From Dataveillance to Uberveillance and the Realpolitik of the Transparent Society” brought together academics and a class list of reviewers from different disciplines to discuss the subject. At this event, Professor Roger Clarke’s 20 year contribution to the field of surveillance and more broadly privacy in Australia was also celebrated as he delivered a keynote address titled: “What ‘überveillance’ is and what to do about it.” In the proceedings of the workshop, uberveillance was embraced by a number of authors, who saw it as an appropriate term to describe the current trajectory of ‘surveillance’ technologies. In 2008 a special issue on Advanced Location Based Services in Computer Communications also published an introductory note on ethics and uberveillance.

Outside references to the term in IT-related blogs and academic papers the term has also been featured in Forbes Magazine by Robert Ellis Smith, Quadrant, National Post by Craig Offman, ABC America Online, Yahoo!Canada’s Home Page, The Inquirer by Nick Farrell, the Edmunton Sun by Alan Findlay, The Sunday Times Online, WIN News and Southern Cross Channel 10. It has also been highlighted in a number of interviews such as on ABC Illawarra with N. Rheinberger. The term was also given a special mention by the keynote on the final day of the 29th International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners.

How did you come up with that word?

That’s a good question… it certainly did come from very close collaboration, especially over the last 7 years, bringing disparate fields of study closer together. We believe the influence came from our cross-disciplinary studies in a number of fields including Philosophy, Languages, Theology, Ancient History, Information Technology and Law. Most certainly it was MG Michael’s long affinity and love for words having studied linguistics early on in his career, and having had a number of poems published in some of Australia’s leading poetry journals, such as Southerly and Westerly.

Surveillance as a ‘word’ just did not describe the full extent of the technological capability available today. For instance, there are commercial organizations now chipping people (willing participants) for a variety of applications, including Alzheimer’s, entry access, and employment for the purpose of automatic identification.We needed a word to describe the profoundly intrusive nature of such technologies and it was no longer about Big Brother ‘looking down’, but rather about Big Brother ‘on the inside looking out’. “Uberveillance” also has an onomatopoeic ring to it as well- when one says the word out aloud, its meaning is suggested. Uberveillance is piercing, intrusive, unrelenting, pervasive, constant, and embedded in the body, and in its ultimate form what is captured cannot be edited, reversed or removed. In specific technological terms uberveillance can be described as an omnipresent electronic surveillance facilitated by technology that makes it possible to embed surveillance devices in the human body.

Uberveillance takes that which was “static” or “discrete” in the dataveillance world, and makes it “constant” and “embedded”. It has to do with the fundamental “who” (ID), “where” (location), “when” (time) questions in an attempt to derive “why” (motivation), “what” (result), and even “how” (method/plan/thought). Uberveillance can be a predictive mechanism for one’s expected behaviour, traits, characteristics, likes or dislikes; or it can be based on historical fact, or something in between.

What does it mean to you to have the word officially recognised in the Macquarie dictionary?

While the German prefix ‘uber’ was popular in the 1990s for slang terms, the connection between uber and the French veiller came about through many long hard years of research. We sort of were already describing uberveillance a long time before Michael conceived of the word. The word just summarized it all very neatly. The use of the German prefix “uber” shows that we are not just talking about typical surveillance, and that inherently in this new state of surveillance we are entering unchartered territory.

Uberveillance had previously made it onto several online dictionaries including the and but to get it recognized in Australia’s official dictionary was for us an absolute thrill. It was also a vindication not only for us, but also for a larger group of colleagues both in Australia and internationally with whom we must also share this distinction .It clearly evidences to the impact of our work over a sustained period of time, especially given the list of words is international and includes terms that have been in use for much longer. We do not know who nominated the word, or how it got onto the list, but it is without a doubt one of the outcomes we will hold as a major achievement.

What sort of uberveillance research is UOW currently doing?

Stay tuned- we are not far from launching a web portal on Uberveillance which will showcase our research, that of our students, and fellow academic and professional collaborators. Till now our focus has been on ‘proving’ how invasive some technologies can actually be, providing avenues for public discourse and promoting the use of safeguards.

Uberveillance is not just a ‘cute’ word, there is history and substance behind it as can be seen for instance in some of the projects we are currently engaged with, and this is what most find really fascinating. Such as the study on the privacy, trust and security implications of chip implants (e.g. Alzheimer’s patients); the link between exaggerated surveillance and forms of mental duress (e.g. in this instance virtual surveillance conducted by other citizens using web cams, blogs, social networking sites); location based services regulation in Australia to supplement the Unified Privacy Principles (UPP) in the Privacy Act; the ethical implications of the electrophorus (i.e. the bearer of electric technology); discovering the motivations behind underground implantees and why they are embedding technologies under their skin on their own accord; and studying the trade-offs between privacy, value and control in RFID applications, such as e-passport and e-tollways.