Who is watching the watchers? Civilian surveillance of government

With the widespread availability of phones in cameras and tablet devices – in fact it is hard to buy one today that doesn’t include a camera – it is inevitable that people will take them out and take a snap of their most – or least favourite – public figures.

These photos and video get shared, usually online, and generally contain metadata detailing when and where they were taken.

So what is the outcome when citizens, concerned at the actions of politicians or public servant officials, begin photoing and filming their movements for accountability purposes?

David Eade (from Qld’s Gov 2.0 community) has written a fabulous blog post on this topic in Govloop, Citizen Surveillance and the Coming Challenge for Public Institutions.

In this post David specifically highlights citizen surveillance of law enforcement officials and agencies – something of intense interest to anyone following cases such as the recent death of a Brazilian student after being tasered by Sydney police (by the way, for more on the rise of non-lethal law enforcement devices, watch this great TEDx Canberra video from Stephen Coleman).

What if a group of citizens, frustrated at the conduct or decisions by a government official (that is any public official – elected or appointed), took it upon themselves to organise round-the-clock surveillance of that person’s movements and activities, using a group of people armed with phone-based cameras, filming only from public property (as is legal)?

What if they uploaded all these images, with commentary, to social networking sites for discussion and debate?

What if there was an organised movement, perhaps by someone like Get-Up, to release ‘mug shots’ of key government decision-makers in a controversial department or matter, and then invite people to photo them and report what they were doing wherever they went?

There could even be a new phenomenon known as ‘public servant spotters’ – people who take, publish and even trade photos of particularly rare breeds of public servants (such as Secretaries). Imagine the kudos in that community for photographing the entire SES!

This is an interesting new area for citizen power that we haven’t yet seen explored very far.

In many places around the world law enforcement agents now have the legal right to detain or arrested people for photoing or videoing their activities – a course that may be increasingly hard for citizens in liberal democracies to swallow and, given the growing use of CCTV and difficulties in identifying bystanders filming a public occurance, very hard to control. Of course, in more restrictive nations people are routinely beaten or killed for filming police activities.

Is it justifiable or appropriate for governments to broaden these legal powers to all public servants?

Should these legal powers exist at all?

In a society where everyone is a journalist, able to to record and distribute video, photos, opinions and facts, how does a government and its citizens agree on what is appropriate surveillance of the activities of government officials – particularly when activities occur in public on public property at the public’s expense?

I can see this becoming a growing issue for governments around the world. It is a small and simple step from reporting police activities, filming road workers or snapping photos of elected officials flirting with someone who is not their spouse to photoing and using public facial recognition tools to identify every person entering and leaving a public office.

It is then a simple matter to use social networks or Gold.gov.au to identify their responsibilities and activities. Another simple step to film or photo or text record their public activities wherever they go. Another simple step to publish their activities online, and another to use the pressure to influence their judgement and decisions.

Note this may not be the world we want, however it is the world we already have, it has just been slightly hidden behind private investigators and paparazzi.

When every citizen has a camera with them all the time, what will it mean to governments if they choose to use them?

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