When Big Brother Spies, Spy Right Back

I'm sure you've heard by now that there's no such thing as privacy.

The National Security Agency has been busy quietly collecting information ranging from how often Americans call their grandparents to the nasty emails they write about colleagues. And Canadians aren't exempt from Big Brother's watch. The NSA tracks phone calls made to other countries and much of our online info is stored on American servers. Our own government has similar surveillance powers -- we just haven't had a dramatic whistleblower.

We should all be very afraid. Or should we be?

Though it's tempting to feel like characters in Nineteen Eighty-Four, there's one important difference between the Orwellian world and our society: in 2013, the citizens spy too. Though the authorities may be watching us, we're staring right back at them through the lens of our cellphone cameras.

Welcome to citizen surveillance.

People such as Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and members of the hacktivist group Anonymous have set out to dramatically and deliberately prove that authority figures no longer have the last word. Because of Snowden's NSA whistle-blowing, Barack Obama recently announced reforms to government surveillance programs. Anonymous pressured police members to reopen the Rehtaeh Parsons case, and four months after her suicide two arrests have been made. And while they may be the poster people for watching the watchdog, most of us simply stumble into the citizen surveillance squad and still produce valuable results.

The thought of the government judging people based on personal emails and phone calls rightly feels disempowering, but cellphones have given citizens the unprecedented ability to judge authority back. The best example is police officers, whose actions are now publicly scrutinized as never before. The country was shocked to watch bystander footage of Toronto's 18-year-old Sammy Yatim being shot nine times by an officer. Yatim was standing in an evacuated street car holding only a knife. In July, a video filmed from a car window of two police officers beating a man on a Quebec reserve led to widespread outrage. Both incidents have helped reignite the debate about the police's use of excessive force that flared up in 2007 when a bystander recorded Robert Dziekanski dying after being tasered five times at the Vancouver airport. Without the amateur videos, the police would have surely downplayed these incidents, and the public would be hard-pressed to question their version of events.

We can rail against the state having no place in our bedrooms, or focus on how a cellphone and an Internet connection can turn anyone into a paparazzo -- handy for getting to know our politicians a little more intimately.

Citizen surveillance has provided some unflattering angles of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford -- most recently last Friday when he was captured slurring his words in multiple cellphone videos after having "a couple of beers" during a street festival. His defence might have been more believable if we had never seen the photo of Ford with former mayoral candidate Sarah Thomson -- eyes shut, shirt stained -- that accompanied her allegation that he grabbed her ass. Or read about his alleged starring role in a certain video.

While Ford has miraculously retained power, amateur footage can ruin political careers and campaigns. Remember that all-too-honest moment captured in a bartender's video of Mitt Romney referring to 47 per cent of the American population as freeloaders at a private fundraising dinner? Not even his wife Anne's divulgence that she and Mitt had once upon a time eaten tuna and pasta off an ironing board was able to save Romney from that unfortunate bit of political pillow talk.

It's not just the government that is spying on us either; we have to worry about Facebook and Google combing our private messages to decide whether to serve us an ad for cowboy boots or high heels. The data collection from corporations is disturbing, but the reality is that unethical corporate behaviour is now easier than ever to expose. When the Costa Concordia sank in 2012, a cruiser filmed a crew member's reckless announcement that passengers should return to their cabins (despite the fact that employees knew the severity of the damage and were putting people's lives in jeopardy) and broadcast it all over the web.

Five people were recently convicted of manslaughter in the case, and the many passenger videos were used to make a documentary re-creating the disaster minute-by-minute.

So far, citizen surveillance has been largely accidental: people pulling out their cellphones to record unexpected moments of horror. But what if instead of complaining about authorities spying on us, we made more concerted efforts to expose them? The people behind the Arab Spring successfully used technology en masse to subvert authoritarian regimes and the organizers of Occupy Wall Street used it to plan and broadcast a movement.

Our tools are only becoming more sophisticated: imagine the detail that will be captured once we're all wearing Google Glass. If the average person walked around with one eye cocked towards opportunities for citizen surveillance, imagine the database we could amasse.

Rather than fearing what the government knows about us, let's feel empowered knowing our pockets and purses contain the tools to broadcast what we know about them.

*This article originally appeared in the Ottawa Citizen.