Cellphone videocams, ‘sousveillance’, and the death of deference

By: Sandford BorinsBy making embarrassing information about government widely available, the Internet is leading to the death of deference. “Sousveillance” is the idea that, to adapt the words of the Second Amendment to the U.S. constitution,the people, bearing video-enabled cellphones, can readily monitor and publicize the behaviour of politicians and public servants. A recent example: the video of the tasering and subsequent death of Robert Dziekanski at Vancouver Airport, available on YouTube for a month, has been viewed over 800,000 times and generated over 10,000 comments.There are now enough video-enabled cellphones out there that any instance of aggressive policing conducted in public or any emergency response operation will be caught on video and disseminated over the Internet. While the implications of this technology for crisis and emergency situations are clear, what of routine public service transactions?The traditional idea of public service anonymity was based on a machine model of bureaucracy. So, for instance, if you are returning to Canada at Pearson Airport, you should expect to be treated the same regardless of which agent questions you. Of course, people don't believe this, and often choose the agent they think will be most friendly. (Having one common queue, as in U.S. customs pre-clearance at Pearson, eliminates this choice by forcing you to go to the next available agent).The first crack in the machine model came in the 80s, when public servants working at counters were required to wear name tags. The rationale was that if you didn't like the service you received, you at least knew whom to complain about.Cellphone cams take this to a new level. When you are being served, you can discretely record the transaction and, if you feel you have been treated shabbily, post it online. Or you can subtly display your cellphone as a warning to the public servant across the counter that you are capable of recording the transaction.How should government respond? It could try to ban cellphones at service counters, but that could only be enforced by body-searching people before serving them, hardly the message government wants to send. Two better alternatives would be enhanced training of public servants and instituting videotaping of front-counter service. Videotaping is simply the equivalent to the current practice of monitoring of call-centre service. In addition, a government videocam mounted overhead focuses on both the public servant and the service recipient, providing a more impartial record than a cellphone aimed at the public servant alone.Surveillance meant that big brother was watching you. Sousveillance means that you can watch big brother.This will be my last post for the year. I'll be back in early January and will be devoting some attention to the online aspect of the American presidential elections.My best wishes to all my readers for lots of face-time during the holidays with those you love, and health and happiness in the New Year.

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