Arie Altena

On Patrol
'Know your place in society'
Surveillance, dataveillance, sousveillance, equiveillance


At the beginning of the science-fiction novel Trouble on Triton (1976), the American author Samuel R. Delany describes so-called 'ego-booster booths', booths that you can visit to perk up your ego. You go in, put your government identity card into the slot, pay the small fee and on the small video screen you watch a three-minute film of yourself, selected at random from the government's database. They're almost certainly images that no one has ever seen. This gives insecure citizens a remarkable feeling of self-confidence.

The 'ego-booster booths' are a direct consequence of the government's surveillance activities. Delany imagines how this might have come about. Twelve years earlier a great stir had been made because the government had turned out to be in possession of an average of ten hours of video recordings of the private life of every citizen. A year later it was made clear that 99.999% of that information was never reviewed by human eye, that it was taken, developed and catalogued by machine. It was also perfectly innocuous and could be released to the public without the least threat to government security. Another year went by and a law was passed giving every citizen the right to examine all such recordings, after which someone whose name was never mentioned came up with the idea of 'ego-booster booths'.

Anyone in 2005 who isn't all that bothered about the omnipresent surveillance cameras and continuous data collection usually points out that a good citizen has nothing to hide. Furthermore, this order-loving citizen reasons, surveillance is essential for guaranteeing security. Cameras on train platforms, on the high street, in shops, security gates at school: anyone who keeps to the rules doesn't have anything to fear. So 'Ego-booster booths' are a form of psychological entertainment, and proof that the government is being open about its activities.

Delany makes it clear that such a view is naive by giving the ego-booster booths the inscription 'Know your place in society'. They are part of a secret training procedure. Delany is, unsurprisingly, a great authority on the work of the French philosopher Michel Foucault, who, in Surveillir et punir (Discipline and Punish), used Jeremy Bentham's panopticon as an architectural metaphor for Modernity and the creation of the modern subject: the feeling (or the knowledge) that you are constantly being observed, even though the observer in the centre is invisible, leads to self-discipline. Delany's 'ego-booster booths' are an intriguing variant on this theme.

In order to describe the situation nowadays, it is perhaps better to use the word 'dataveillance'. Surveillance cameras are still the most tangible example of surveillance; such cameras can now see in the dark, can zoom in and out and are linked to software that analyses the recorded images, recognises identities and weighs up the anticipated risks. But the collection of digital data about all of our behaviour goes much further and also happens automatically. Everywhere we go we leave behind digital traces of our behaviour, traces that are frequently recorded, processed and analysed. Your identity is formed by the digital traces that you leave behind: databases of banks, marketing multinationals, private data collection agencies and government know more about you than you can remember yourself. Bank cards and credit cards leave a trace of your purchases and the places you've been. The location of mobile phones is constantly tracked and the data are recorded, so that even later, if suspicion falls on you, it can be established where your phone was. A record is kept of the location of goods and RFID tags (radio-frequency ID tags), which can replace barcodes, continuously transmit their position to the tracking database. Goods and people are 'networked' and the data can be logged. The classic example is your fridge telling your mobile phone that you've run out of milk and reminding you about it when you go into the shop (because the telephone knows that you're going into the shop). For some people this undoubtedly represents a godsend; this technology will be indispensable for the logistics industry. Then there's the data from GPS satellites, already essential for in-car navigation systems, and of increasing importance for walking holidays.

It doesn't stop there: the first pets have been implanted with RFID tags under their skin, which means that, thanks to the GPS system, owners are always kept informed of the whereabouts of their beloved pets. It is possible to equip every child, every newborn baby, with such a chip, and there are people who find this an attractive prospect. Maybe we won't have these chips implanted, but the universal chip card with a tiny transmitter that automatically produces and pays for our train tickets as soon as we go through a gate at the station is very nearly ready for operation, and in the near future will operate with an iris scan and a check on biometric details.

There are far-reaching plans to oblige all internet providers to log and record all 'traffic details' of their customers, with a record being kept of which sites you visit and which data you absorb. The internet, though it may sound paradoxical, is both heavily secured and completely open. The network is strongly reinforced with firewalls, because servers have to endure hundreds, if not thousands, of attacks a minute from malicious viruses and spyware, sent, for example, from untrustworthy marketing companies and data wholesalers. Every user has their own login and password and so is under the impression that their own information is safe. However, users are scarcely aware of the fact that their e-mails are sent over the network in a form that is completely open and exposed, that spyware has installed itself in their system, or that their servers are used by people sending spam. Incidentally, does anyone remember Echelon, the secret program of the security forces that scanned e-mail for suspicious words?

Most of this digital data will never be reviewed by human eye. As Harun Farocki's documentary film-essay Auge Maschine I, II & III makes clear, it is machine eyes that look, analyse, weigh up the situation and finally even make decisions. Everything is recorded in algorithms; the machines are controlled by intelligent programs; rules and evaluation strategies are recorded in the software and hardware.

Given all of these examples, there is great temptation to fall victim to paranoia. 'They' are constantly keeping an eye on us, they know all of our moves and it can only get worse. We appear to be heading towards a state of total dataveillance, living under the illusion that most of these dataveillance activities are only connected to the one user (yourself) who has the password for the home directory (only you know where your dog with its implanted chip is, only you know which train tickets you've bought). But it's possible that all this information is recorded and remains accessible for the authorities. Dataveillance penetrates every aspect of society: monetary transactions, logistics, everyday communication, the Sunday walk. Foucault would talk in terms of micropolitics. If one thing is clear, it's that rules are needed for this area, but that rules alone are not sufficient. We must not forget that society is a collective of people and non-people, not of people versus technology.

Should we argue for curtailment or abolition? Is that still possible? Delany writes, also in Trouble on Triton: 'such systems, once begun, insinuate themselves into the greater system in overdetermined ways: Jobs depended on them, space had been set aside for them, research was going on over how to do them more efficiently -- such overdetermined systems, hard enough to revise, are even harder to abolish.' (p. 4). Total dataveillance cannot be detached from society without organising that society in a completely different way. Paranoia and attempts to escape from the umbrella of dataveillance hardly seem to be productive strategies.

In 1990, Gilles Deleuze wrote a short update of Foucault's ideas on the disciplinary surveillance society. In the surveillance society the disciplinary process begins time and again: firstly within the family, then at school, then in the factory. There are two poles: the individual who is himself, and the number that he is in the crowd. In the society of control sketched by Deleuze, that division no longer exists: individuals have become 'dividuals', part of the market, continually woven into the digital control networks. Centralist surveillance, which is linked to the metaphor of the panopticon (the state as an authority in the centre, observing all subjects), has been replaced by more cunningly distributed control in the digital network society. But there are still various authorities exercising that control.

Surveillance leads to counter-surveillance. The tactical deployment of cameras at political or cultural events has been customary for over ten years. Demonstrators film the behaviour of the police (whereupon the police immediately begin to film the demonstrators). Campaigners use websites to map out the positions of surveillance cameras in the streets; artists develop counter-strategies or perform theatrical pieces in front of the eye of the surveillance cameras. It is also true in this case that cameras are still the most tangible aspect and symbol of sur- and dataveillance.

One artist and researcher who is very involved with this theme is the American Steve Mann. He became known for going out into the street with his 'wearcam' in his glasses, doing his shopping and publishing the pictures in his blog. If shops could film him when he was shopping, so went his reasoning, he could also film the actions of the salespeople. Mann argues for 'sousveillance', his version of counter-surveillance. Whilst surveillance takes place from an authoritarian perspective, from above, with only the authorities having access to the recorded data and surveillance taking place under a veil of secrecy, sousveillance is in the hands of the people themselves, taking place at eye level, with citizens collecting and publishing recordings of activities in which they have taken part, and having free access to the databases. What was a matter of state becomes a matter for distributed communities. Instead of the authoritarian 'there's no privacy, get used to it', the line is 'there's no secrecy, get used to it'. Sousveillance will, according to Steve Mann, lead to a balanced situation, which he calls 'equiveillance'. The question is whether Mann's suggestion is an alternative that is worthy of pursuing. On the one hand, it is reminiscent of the academic who writes his login and password in big letters on his office door, because 'I've got nothing to hide.' On the other hand, Steve Mann's idea fits in very well with the fact that people have never of their own accord and consciously published so much personal information as in the past five years. There are (estimate, May 2005) nine million weblogs where people report their everyday comings and goings. Millions of personal photos and films are placed online, where they can be viewed by anyone with an internet connection;, where users can add comments to photos, is hugely popular. In addition to this unnoticed creation of digital traces, some people intentionally leave a digital trace, and continuously work on creating a public digital identity. Most of this information finds its way into search engines and database archives.

We still need the perspective of a disciplining and controlling authority to analyse modern-day dataveillance, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep to that perspective alone. Foucault's analysis dealt with the construction of the modern subject, whilst that of Deleuze was about the postmodern subject in the network society. Perhaps we must also try to develop the new interpretations of the concept of the subject and privacy from the point of view of near-future scenarios. With all this intentional publication of personal data, does the modern idea still hold true that you yourself are first and foremost 'your own innermost, individual self', which is almost impossible to communicate? Do we have a soul? If so, what is it? Does it need to be protected from the soul-stealing activities of machines? Or is the situation different? What kind of liberties need to be safeguarded? What sort of privacy? Ultimately, it's about what kind of society you believe in. It is still possible to survive in the Western world without a mobile phone and not to become socially isolated. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult. So, sousveillance or ego-booster booth?

Samuel R. Delany, Trouble on Triton, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, Conn. 1996 (1976).
Gilles Deleuze, 'Postscript on the Society of Control',, originally in L'autre journal, Nr. 1, May 1990, and October 59, Winter 1992, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass, p. 3-7.
Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, the Birth of the Prison, Penguin, London, 1977 (1975).
Steve Mann, 'Equiveillance: The equilibrium between Sur-veillance and Sous-veillance', May 2005,

Written for De Appel, on occasion of the exhibition On Patrol, 2005
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Arie Altena