surveillance techniques

Do you check your surroundings before you decide to quickly pick your nose, or adjust your underwear nowadays? We are increasingly aware of possible surveillance around us. Many authorities assume their legal right to place surveillance cameras, often as a measure to provide better security. In some countries, encouraging everyone’s participation to keep an eye on the suspicious people or objects may be necessary for the common good of the society. In some places, the signs of surveillance may be used as a measure to prevent people from misbehaving.

In Korea, a country technically still in truce, there’s a dedicated phone number, 111, to report spies (North Korean or industrial), terrorists, or international criminals. The rewards for reporting spies or spy ships are also clearly written in the commonly found posters: Approximately 65kEur for a spy, 1.5 times more for a spy ship. Having the dedicated phone number for turning spies in is a practice with a long history, which provides immediate ways to act for those who are willing and have access to voice calls.


111 number korea

An ad placed in buses in London encouraging people to be alert about the “suspicious”. Less direct than the Korean approach, but it at least stopped me to think about what would be appropriately suspicious enough to tell the bus staff or police.

london bus suspicious

london bus sign 2

In Helsinki, you may see stickers very visibly indicating the existence of surveillance cameras even though you don’t see the camera itself on taxis or in the airport. The camera icon without any written description implies that people would understand the meaning of the icon being the function of surveillance cameras.

helsinki camera icon

helsinki camera icon on taxi

The more typical signs possibly built with the intention of amplifying the effect of having the surveillance cameras are easily found in UK. The first sign is from London, second from Whistable.

london street surveillance sign

london surveillance sign

Buildings with security companies behind them often display the company logos on the building. Perhaps the reputation of the security company among the petty criminals in the neighborhood is something we would need when selecting which company to turn to.

london surveillance house

In buses or metro stations in Tokyo, this sign featuring big eyes are often found. It is issued by the Tokyo police department, read “We won’t let evil escape” – a message very indirect, but probably functions as a reassurance of the police’s presence.

tokyo police slogan

In addition to the formally established surveillance mechanisms, the emerging form of surveillance is enabled by the majority of individuals carrying recording and communication devices – as already discussed 3 years ago in South Korea over the ‘dog poop girl’ incident.

Leaving the debate on the good and the evil of the citizen journalism enabled by the proliferation of digital tools aside for now – I am wondering how people’s public behavior may be influenced by the implicit potential of people near you reporting your bad or good deeds. ‘Nearby’ people may be those who share the same physical space and time or communication channels like a chat session or a wifi hub with you at the same time. With digital devices’ increasing ability to capture contextual information such as location coordinates, reconstructing a coherent scene or a story with digital data collected by hundreds of people will become relatively easier as well.

Surprisingly a lot of people see mobile phone as a useful tool to capture evidences to prevent lies or fraud and to be used against future disputes in our recent work hosting a mobile phone design competition called Open Studio. On the other hand, the rejection for adoption may be well on the way as well. During the first trial of Lifeblog prototype in 2002, some people showed the fear of collecting the comprehensive personal mobile data including their whereabouts. It was the fear of giving up the protection of ambiguity, the plausible deniability when the usage of technology becomes widely known and adopted.

That leaves another interesting question: How would people drop out of, or at least minimize their digital traces and minimize contributing to create others’? We are probably not expecting stickers and badges showing “this person does NOT have cameras” or “this person will NOT use cameras”. One of the memorable Ubicomp conference talks was on the interesting concept of creating capture-resistant environment, preventing camera phones to take photos by overexposing photos attempted in the region covered by this technology. While I am sure there are certain types of places this technology would be very useful, I do have my doubts if there would ever be any technology successfully controlling people’s digital behaviors.

9 thoughts on “surveillance techniques

  1. David Mery

    > An ad placed in buses in London encouraging people to be alert about the “suspicious”. Less direct than the Korean approach, but it at least stopped me to think about what would be appropriately suspicious enough to tell the bus staff or police.

    The Metropolitan Police Service has been running its own yearly ad campaign. This year’s posters focus on mobile phones, cameras and doors. You can find a bit more about it, including links to the posters, at

    br -d

  2. annamatic

    In NYC, there’s the really vague campaign, “If you see something, say something,” which I find kinda funny. I wonder how many prank calls they get. On the other hand, this use of cameraphones seems pretty successful:

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  5. Julian Bleecker

    Minimzing and countering is one perspective, and important to consider. I wonder how much the “digital kids” think of ways to counter their traces, especially when they seem to be sharing so much. The meaning and context of surveillance seems particularly relevant to specific generations of people — those of us who read 1984, for example. The group the Institute for Applied Autonomy created a great pre-Google mapping system called iSee that allowed you to find routes that avoided surveillance cameras. Or The Surveillance Camera Players are a group who do performances in front of surveillance cameras — not minimizing their traces, but enhancing them and being deliberate about how they author that “space.” Similarly, in a reverse mode, Life: A User’s Manual by Michelle Teran captures the signals leaked into public space by RF-based video cameras and reveals intimate spaces in a very DIY and performative fashion.

    It may be that the question is no to much avoiding “capture” but how to turn that space into something where your voice can be heard. I’m not convinced, but it seems that we (a bit older people) think of surveillance in one way that digital kids (the next “us”) will see as an opportunity for a new form of living.

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  7. Kal

    I think there are two really interesting points here. The first is a distinction that I saw recently made in a special report in The Economist between surveillance and sousveillance (sous being French for “under”). The idea is that, for some, the source also matters. In California you might bot be so worried about the state watching you as you might be about the everybody-papparazi being able to find things about you. I suppose that this is a bigger deal in places like the US as opposed to former communist or socialist states because many of those have a long history of citizens spying on each other on behalf of the state.

    The second thing is that you’ve sort of focussed on the issue of data capture but I don’t think that’s the real problem people are facing. There is a lot of information we want to capture and distribute about our location, etc. but we want to be able to erase it afterwards. The fact of the permanent record is what I think is making people a bit hesitant about capturing information in the first place for most. I also think there may be a bit of sample bias where early adopters/techies may be more concerned about privacy than others.

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