Government officials need to be ready for 'sousveillance,' social trend expert says

As social media and mobile technologies continue to expand, government officials and employees increasingly may be targets of “sousveillance”—a French term for ‘bottom-up’ surveillance—carried out by ordinary citizens in the coming years, according to an Internet trend analyst.

“It is the ordinary watching the powerful,” Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, said in a lecture sponsored by the Federal Web Managers Council interagency group on Dec. 13.

While the term sousveillance is not yet commonly used in the United States, the practice has become fairly prevalent here in recent years as more citizens carry and use video recording devices such as iPhones in public spaces and at public events. While bystander videotapes of law enforcement activities have been controversial on occasion, many forms of citizen videotaping of public officials' activity are hailed by transparency advocates as a sign of increased engagement and transparency in society.

For agency leaders and other government figures, that means videos of their public speeches and appearances, along with tweets, comments on Facebook, blog posts and other public communications could be collected and displayed on social media websites in near real time, Rainie said.

An example is that Occupy Wall Street protesters and their supporters have made it a practice of video-recording police and public officials who interact with them and posting those videos online, Rainie said.

More generally, it has become common for community members around the country to post amateur videos of live speeches by elected officials and to publish and curate online other communications by public officials, he added.

Governments are not the only targets of the increased ability to monitor behavior online. Government surveillance of citizens also is on the rise, as it citizen surveillance of each other, using contemporary technology such as Facebook, Twitter, iPhones, video cameras and recording devices, Rainie said.

While young people ages 18 to 25 are thought to have the most to lose by too much disclosure online -- as incontrovertible evidence of their youthful indiscretions spread far and wide electronically -- research shows they are the age group who actually are the most protective of their online reputations, Rainie said.

“They are very conscious of the need to manage their online reputations,” Rainie said.

Rainie outlined several major trends affecting American adults: 84 percent are using cell phones; 50 percent are using social media; and 35 percent are using smart phones. About 23 percent of the smart phone users use mapping tools.

Nonetheless, 22 percent of Americans do not use the Internet, most of them older or disabled.

Internet users report a greater reliance on government websites than on social media at this time. In a survey, 67 percent said it was very important to have access to government websites and 62 percent said it was very important to be able to contact government officials on the Web. But only 21 percent said it was very important to reach government agencies on social media networks.

Nearly a quarter of the Internet users are “government participators,” with 12 percent joining groups affecting government policy or issues; 7 percent uploading video from government websites; 3 percent attending online town hall meetings; 2 percent posting comments on government blogs; and 1 percent posting comments on government social media websites, Rainie said.

The lecture was the first in the web managers' Joe Pagano Memorial Web Analytics Lecture Series, named in memory of Joe Pagano, former co-chair of the Web Metrics Sub-Council, which is part of the web managers group.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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