The Ethics of the Generalized Sousveillance

Jean-Gabriel Ganascia


Generalized sousveillance

A spectre is haunting the contemporaneous world, the spectre of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” [9], the famous Orwell’s novel. With webcams, RFID tags, remote sensing techniques and many other new information technologies, it now becomes possible to continuously record all the daily activities of everybody [1, 8]. Moreover, in many developed countries, personal data concerning health, employment, incomes, travels and digital communications are officially traced and stored in data bases. It is then possible to fuse all those data using modern data mining techniques. Many people fear the surveillance society that could result from the generalized use of those techniques.

However, the continuous record of all individual data, i.e. the constitution of personal digital archives, and their public dissemination through the web may receive a completely different interpretation. They contribute to establish a state of total transparency among people. According to some researchers, for instance to Steve Mann, this would not really lead to a generalized surveillance society, but to a regime of “sousveillance” [7], where the powerful people are permanently under the watch of those whom they dominate. For instance, if the police beat youths in the street or on a platform subway, the use of mobile phone makes every onlooker able to record and to publicly spread videos of this event. Recently, the 20th of June 2009, during the demonstrations of protest against the results of the Iranian presidential elections, a young woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, was shot in the chest. Immediately, her tragic death was captured on video by bystanders and broadcasted over the internet, which drew the international attention, while in old totalitarian countries such information would have been totally ignored. Such a story characterizes the society of sousveillance where everything can be seen by everybody, without the knowledge of the powerful people, even if they prohibit information dissemination. This clearly opposes to the local surveillance societies, which have dominated the 20th century.
Panopticon vs. Catopticon

The Panopticon has been designed in the end of the 18th century by Jeremy Bentham, as architecture for prisons [2]. It was supposed both to decrease the cost of surveillance and to improve its efficiency. Many philosophers, whom Michel Foucault in “Surveiller et punir” [4] was among, described it as a typical “dispositif” of the modern legal state, i.e. as a social arrangement that summarizes the underlying political structure of the society. Briefly speaking, the Panopticon is built on a ring around a central tower, where inspectors can see all the actions of prisoners. The cells are transparent, which means that they receive and transmit the sunlight. In that way, the inspectors may observe every movement of the prisoners without being viewed. Moreover, the prisoners are totally isolated from each others. To summarize, the Panopticon principles are: 1- the total transparency of the peripheral cells, 2- a fundamental inequality, which makes the occupants of the central tower, i.e. the observers, watching all the occupants of the periphery, i.e. the prisoners, without being watched, 3- the isolation of the prisoners who can’t communicate each others.

In a recent paper [5], we have shown that, by analogy to the Panopticon, that schematizes the surveillance society, the generalized sousveillance gives birth to another social arrangement that we call the “Catopticon”. The three fundamental principles on which the Catopticon is built can be compared with – an opposed to – the three fundamental principle of the Panopticon : 1- the total transparency of society, 2- the fundamental equality, which gives everybody the ability to watch – and consequently to control – everybody, 3- the total communication, which makes everyone able to exchange to everyone. In practice, it means that there is no hierarchy, i.e. no central tower, and that everyone may communicate to everyone in a total transparency.

There are many examples that show the existence and the modernity of the Catopticon [6]. For instance, due to the extensive use of information technologies, the modern subway is a Catopticon, while the classical 20th century subway was organized on the model of a Panopticon. More generally, the contemporaneous infosphere is mainly structured as a huge Catopticon [6] that is extended both to the entire planet and to the world of informational organisms, i.e. “inforgs” by reference to Floridi terminology [3].
Ethical Issues of the Panopticon

During the past few years, most of the computer ethics issues were related to the figure of the Panopticon, which acted negatively, showing what to avoid. More precisely, ethical attitudes were mainly motivated by the Panopticon of which they must prevent the achievement. It means, by reference to the characteristic structure of the Panopticon, that it is necessary both to restrict the ability of the central tower occupants to observe the occupants of the periphery and to make the occupants of the periphery able to freely communicate among them. For instance, the notion of privacy defines the limits of the transparency that makes a central power able to gather personal informations about the occupants of the periphery and to misuse them. Concerning the civil society, ethical questions are related to the lack of free and the authentic communication among people , e.g. to identity usurpation, and to the cyber-criminality. Lastly, the way the free speech and the democracy are influenced by the development of information technology defines new relations between the central power and the peripheral.
Ethical Issues of the Catopticon

Our goal, in this paper, is to show that many modern ethical issues are not directly related to the Panopticon, but to the Catopticon. More precisely, the main problems not only concern the privacy and the emergence of a totalitarian state in a hierarchical society, but also the anonymity and new distinction processes in an equalitarian society. Those processes are mainly based on the use of search engine, as Google, on voting procedures and on reputation establishment, like in eBay. Their economical and political roles are more and more important in the information society. However, many techniques – e.g. “Spamdexing” – tend to bias those distinction processes, which could generate new inequalities, new discriminations, new unfairness and new injustices. We claim that the Catopticon helps to understand those new ethical issues [6].


[1] Bailey, J. and Kerr, I. (2007), The experience capture experiments of Ringley & Mann, Ethics and Information Technology, Springer Netherlands, Volume 9, Number 2 / July 2007, 129-139

[2] Bentham, J. (1838), Panopticon or the Inspection House, The Work of Jeremy Bentham, volume IV, 37-172

[3] Floridi, L. (2008) Information Ethics, its Nature and Scope, in: Jeroen van den Hoven and John Weckert (eds.), Information Technology and Moral Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

[4] Foucault, M. (1975), Surveiller et punir, Gallimard, Paris, France, p. 252 – In English Discipline and Punish, trans. A. Sheridan. (1977) New York: Vintage.

[5] Ganascia, J.-G. (2009a), The Great Catopticon, in proceedings of the 8th Computer Ethics and Philosophical Enquiry conference, June 2009, Corfu, Greece.

[6] Ganascia, J.-G. (2009b), Voir et pouvoir: qui nous surveille?, Editions du Pommier, Paris (in French).

[7] Mann, S. (1998) ‘Reflectionism’ and ‘diffusionism’: new tactics for deconstructing the video surveillance superhighway. Leonardo, 31(2): 93-102.

[8] Mann, S., Nolan, J., Wellman, B. (2003), Sousveillance: Inventing and Using Wearable Computing Devices for Data Collection in Surveillance Environments, Surveillance & Society 1(3): 331-355,

[9] Orwell, G. (1949) Nineteen Eighty-Four, Secker and Warburg, London, UK.