Sousveillance: Implications for Privacy, Security, Trust, and the Law


Point of view has its foundations in film. It usually depicts a scene through the eyes of a character. Body-worn video-recording technologies now mean that a wearer can shoot film from a first-person perspective of another subject or object in his or her immediate field of view (FOV). The term sousveillance has been defined by Steve Mann to denote a recording done from a portable device such as a head-mounted display (HMD) unit in which the wearer is a participant in the activity. Some people call it inverse surveillance because it is the opposite of a camera that is wall mounted and fixed.



During the initial rollout of Google Glass, explorers realized that recording other people with an optical HMD unit was not perceived as an acceptable practice despite the fact that the recording was taking place in a public space. Google's blunder was to consider that the device, worn by 8,000 individuals, would go unnoticed, like shopping mall closed-circuit television (CCTV). Instead, what transpired was a mixed reaction by the public—some nonusers were curious and even thrilled at the possibilities claimed by the wearers of Google Glass, while some wearers were refused entry to premises, fined, verbally abused, or even physically assaulted by others in the FOV.

Some citizens and consumers have claimed that law enforcement (if approved through the use of a warrant process) and shop owners have every right to surveil a given locale, dependent on the context of the situation. Surveilling a suspect who may have committed a violent crime or using CCTV as an antitheft mechanism is now commonly perceived as acceptable, but having a camera in your line of sight record you—even incidentally—as you mind your own business can be disturbing for even the most tolerant of people.

Wearers of these prototypes, or even fully fledged commercial products like the Autographer, claim that they record everything around them as part of a need to lifelog or quantify themselves for reflection. Technology like the Narrative Clip may not capture audio or video, but even still shots are enough to reveal someone else's whereabouts, especially if they are innocently posted on Flickr, Instagram, or YouTube. Many of these photographs also have embedded location and time-stamp data. You might not have malicious intent by showing off in front of a landmark, but innocent bystanders captured in the photo could find themselves in a predicament given that the context may be entirely misleading.

Privacy, Security, and Trust

Privacy experts claim that while we once might have been concerned or felt uncomfortable with CCTV being as pervasive as it is today, we are shifting from a limited number of big brothers to ubiquitous little brothers and toward wearable computing. Fueled by social media and instant fame, recording the moment can make you famous as a citizen journalist at the expense of your neighbor.

The fallacy of security is that more cameras do not necessarily mean a safer society. In fact, statistics, depending on how they are presented, may be misleading about reductions in crime in given hotspots. The chilling effect, for instance, dictates that criminals do not just stop committing crime (e.g., selling drugs) because someone installs a bunch of cameras on a busy public route. On the contrary, crime has been shown to be redistributed or relocated to another proximate geographic location. In a study conducted in 2005 for the United Kingdom's Home Office by Martin Gill of the University of Leicester, only one area of a total of 14 studied saw a drop in the number of incidents that could be attributed to CCTV. The problem was with using the existing CCTV systems to “good effect” [1].

Questions of trust seem to be the biggest factor against wearable devices that film other people who have not granted their consent to be recorded. Let's face it: we all know people who do not like to be photographed for reasons we don't quite understand, but it is their right to say, “No, leave me alone.” Others have no trouble being recorded by someone they know, so long as they know they are being recorded prior to the record button being pushed. And still others show utter indifference, claiming that there is no longer anything personal out in the open.

Who's watching whom? Alexander Hayes takes a picture of wearable computer pioneer Steve Mann in Toronto, Canada, during the Conference (IEEE International Symposium on Technology and Society 2013), while Mann uses his EyeTap device and high-definition camera to record a surveillance camera. Is this sousveillance squared? (Photo courtesy of Alexander Hayes.)

Who's watching whom? Alexander Hayes takes a picture of wearable computer pioneer Steve Mann in Toronto, Canada, during the Conference (IEEE International Symposium on Technology and Society 2013), while Mann uses his EyeTap device and high-definition camera to record a surveillance camera. Is this sousveillance squared? (Photo courtesy of Alexander Hayes.)

Often, the argument is posed that anyone can watch anyone else walk down a street. These individuals fail in their assessment, however—watching someone cross the road is not the same as recording them cross the road, whether by design or by sheer coincidence. Handing out requests for deletion every time someone asks whether they've been captured on camera by another is not good enough. Allowing people to opt out “after the fact” is not consent based and violates fundamental human rights such as the control individuals might have over their own image and the freedom to go about their life as they please.

Using technology like the Narrative Clip may not capture audio or video, but even still shots are enough to reveal someone else's whereabouts, especially if they are innocently posted on Flickr, Instagram, or YouTube.

Laws, Regulations, and Policies

At the present time, laws and regulations pertaining to surveillance and listening devices, privacy, telecommunications, crimes, and even workplace relations require amendments to keep pace with advancements in HMDs and even implantable sensors [2]. The police need to be viewed as enforcing the laws that they are there to upkeep, not to don the very devices they claim to be illegal. Policies in campus settings, such as universities, also need to address the seeming imbalance in what is and is not possible. The commoditization of such devices will only lead to even greater public interest issues coming to the fore. The laws are clearly outdated, and there is controversy over how to overcome the legal implications of emerging technologies. Creating new laws for each new device will lead to an endless drafting of legislation, which is not practicable, and claiming that existing laws can respond to new problems is unrealistic, as users will seek to get around the law via loopholes in a patchwork of statutes.

Cameras provide a power imbalance. First, only a few people had mobile phones with cameras, and now they are everywhere. Then, only some people carried body-worn video recorders for extreme sports, and now, increasingly, using a GoPro, Looxcie, or Taser Axon glasses, while still in their nascent stages, has been met with some acceptance, dependent on the context (e.g., for business-centric applications that free the hands in maintenance). Photoborgs might be hitting back at all the cameras on the walls that are recording 24×7, but they do not cancel out the fact that the photoborgs themselves are doing exactly what they are claiming a fixed, wall-mounted camera is doing to them. But beating “them” at their own game has consequences.

The Überveillance Trajectory

One has to ponder: where to next? Might we be well arguing that we are nearing the point of total surveillance, as everyone begins to record everything around them for reasons of insurance protection, liability, and complaint handling “just in case,” like the in-car black box recorder unit that clears you of wrongdoing in accident? And how gullible might we become that images and video footage do not lie, even though a new breed of hackers is destined to manipulate and tamper with reality to their own ends.

Will the new frontier be surveillance of the heart and mind? The überveillance trajectory refers to the ultimate potentiality for embedded surveillance devices like swallowable pills with onboard sensors, tags, and transponder IDs placed in the subdermal layer of the skin, and even diagnostic image sensors that claim to prevent disease by watching innards or watching outward via the translucent dermal epidermal junction [3]. Just look at the spectacle and aura of the November 2014 “chipping” of Singularity University's cofounder Peter Diamandis if you still think this is conspiracy theory [4]! No folks, it's really happening. This event was followed by the chipping party in Sweden of eight individuals [5]. Let us hope this kind of thing doesn't catch on too widely because we stand to lose our freedom, and that very element that separates man from machine.


This article was adapted from Katina Michael, “Redefining Surveillance: Implications for Privacy, Security, Trust, and the Law,” December 2014, Issues Magazine,


1. BBC. (2005). CCTV systems "fail to cut crime." BBC News. [Online]. Available:

2. R. Clarke, "The regulation of point of view surveillance: A review of Australian law," IEEE Technol. Soc. Mag., vol. 33, no. 2, pp. 40-46, 2014.

3. M. G. Michael and K. Michael, Eds., Uberveillance and the Social Implications of Microchip Implants: Emerging Technologies (Advances in Human and Social Aspects of Technology). Hershey, PA: IGI Global, 2013.

4. J. Dorrier. (2014). Summit Europe: Chip implants easy as piercings. Singularity Hub. [Online]. Available:

5. J. Wakefield. (2014). The rise of the Swedish cyborgs. BBC News: technology. [Online]. Available:

Citation: Katina Michael, "Sousveillance: Implications for Privacy, Security, Trust, and the Law", IEEE Consumer Electronics Magazine, Volume: 4, Issue: 2, April 2015, pp. 92 - 94, DOI: 10.1109/MCE.2015.2393006

Impacts: At the intersection between the worlds of consumer electronics and socioeconomics

Editor's Introduction

In our last issue, i wrote about how we'd planned to expand the scope and audience of IEEE Consumer Electronics (CE) Magazine. After all, CE is not just about the design and manufacture of electronic systems and products. These devices and their ecosystems have been changing and altering our lives since the introduction of the TV set in the 1950s and 1960s.

But in today's Internet age, we are so interconnected that society and the economy respond at a much accelerated pace. Changes and disruption that would have taken years, or even decades, back in the 1960s and 1970s can now spread in months or even weeks. And today, their impacts are felt on a global scale, and not just in the developed world, but increasingly among those in the developing world.

As engineers, we are the electronic architects of tomorrow, but the scope and scale of impact that our designs and architectures can have on society and on the economy place significant responsibility on our shoulders. We are all responsible for broadening our perspectives and considering how our work might impact the lives of others. There is much for us to learn beyond the realms of pure science and engineering.

This section of our magazine, aptly titled “Impacts,” is being introduced to help facilitate a broadening of our perspective on the world of CE and to learn more of the various impacts of CE on society. It is introduced in partnership with the IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology (SSIT). Starting with this issue, SSIT members will also be receiving a copy of IEEE CE Magazine, increasing our distribution to IEEE Members in other Societies.

I would like to express a big thank you first to Stefan Mozar, president of the IEEE CE Society, for initiating this collaboration with SSIT and second to Katina Michael, the editor-in-chief of IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, for working with me to put together this first “Impacts ” section.

This is a first attempt, but I think it is a pretty good start—at the same time, I'd much rather hear what some of you think. So please feel free to contact either me or Katina to give your feedback. And we'd welcome suggestions for topics or subject areas that should be addressed in future editions of “Impacts.”

Now a short introduction to our partners on “Impacts ”—the SSIT.

—Peter Corcoran


Introduction to the IEEE SSIT (Katina Michael)

CE has revolutionized the way we live and work. Most students that I know would rather forgo expensive clothing labels than do without their branded smartphone. In fact, some of them would forgo food altogether if it meant their phone could always be on and always with them, clipped onto their belt buckles, strapped into their pants or jacket sleeves, or held in the open palm of their hand. Something happens when our basic needs as humans are overtaken by some other need that was once a distant want at best—plainly, confusion in our ability to rightly determine what our priorities are as humans in any given context.

I have been around people who have lost or had their iPad or iPhone stolen. It is not a pretty sight to see a grown man or woman become frantic and then be reduced to tears over the loss of what is seemingly an inanimate object but in reality has become seamlessly integrated to every aspect of one's life. And lest I look all high and mighty, I had my own laptop stolen with invaluable unbacked Ph.D. research onboard, while working for Nortel Networks and visiting company headquarters in 1999. It took me months to recover from the ordeal, professionally, academically, and even mentally.

The SSIT, with its flagship magazine, IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, explores not only the obvious trends toward CE but those aspects that are not given enough attention on the externality spectrum of potential issues—the threat of ever-increasing screen time for children at school and at home, the use of violent video games, and exposure to different types of online media to everyday consumers, consider even the wide ranging topics that go into supporting the development of such an innovation, tracking its existence from conception to the end of its product lifetime.

Taking the smartphone analogy further, as a typical CE device that affects the global population and that has now saturated the consumer market, SSIT would consider everything from the sustainable design of mobile phones to further investigation of the smartphone's posited harmful effects through the emission of electromagneticfields or the potential to do damage to the wearer's inner ear if played on a high volume daily. The Society would also be interested in submissions on the manner of operational health and safety obligations and conditions of companies during the assemblage of the CE components into the finished product in developing nations. The privacy and security of the data on the smartphone would be an area of interest, as would the ability to dispose of the device without producing ever-increasing e-waste mobile phone dumping grounds with hazardous materials thrown into a landfill.

But that is not all. SSIT's greatest focus is perhaps the economic, institutional, and organization infrastructure surrounding CE products. Aspects of this include how developing countries are adopting CE and their impact on equity and access to information toward international development out of the poverty cycle, the ability to offer remote health care and better access to health information services, the importance of public policy surrounding telecommunications in general, and the laws, standards, and regulations in existence to facilitate use, at the same time protecting the consumer. Herein, it is important to weigh the benefits of CE such as the smartphone—on the one hand, providing life-saving capabilities such as access to emergency services, as opposed to the potential to cyberstalk a stranger using mobile social media or even gather location data from a friend's phone to be used surreptitiously at a later date. Equally, we are interested in articles addressing functionality, such as the ability for human activity and condition monitoring from the dozen or so sensors in the smartphone, as well as the basic traditional applications of call patterns, texting, and usage patterns, with respect to communities of practice online. How might these communities be changing the dynamics between state and society both now and into the future?

One thing for certain is that IEEE SSIT shares some fundamental qualities with the IEEE CE Society—that it is one of the most interdisciplinary Societies within the IEEE, and membership spans across disciplines, with a wide spectrum of interests represented. We are actively seeking papers that tackle the social, environmental, economic, political, and ethical impacts of CE on households, businesses, and governments and how the application of such technology can improve the world around us but also how it may adversely affect the very users it was created to aid.

IEEE SSIT hosts the annual conference, the International Symposium on Technology and Society (ISTAS), and, in 2013, the focus was wearable technologies, while in 2014, the focus will be on ethics and technology. The Society also supports and recognizes engineering ethics, presenting the Carl Barus Award for Outstanding Service in the Public Interest. With active international Chapters all over the world, IEEE SSIT provides a voice for topics that would otherwise not be addressed from all sides of the debate. It is this open discussion that makes IEEE SSIT and IEEE CE such vital Societies as we continue with the explosion of emerging technologies in all aspects of our home and work life. CE affects everybody—from the newborn baby, to the employee, to the elderly. Viewpoints and cutting-edge pieces on all these perspectives are not only welcome but highly valued.

IEEE Keywords: Social factors, Consumer electronics, Sociology, Economics, Media, Mobile handsets, Ethics, Design manufacturing

Citation: Peter Corcoran and Katina Michael, "Impacts: At the intersection between the worlds of consumer electronics and socioeconomics", IEEE Consumer Electronics Magazine, Volume: 3, Issue: 3, July 2014, pp. 57 - 58, Date of Publication: 26 June 2014, DOI: 10.1109/MCE.2014.2317897