Authors: J.P.R. van der Laarse & N.L. Neuman
Publication Date: April 23, 2021

In our new project, we focus on unwrapping the concept of Inverse surveillance, and how it can be used to empower citizens with AI technology. Since we wanted to place surveillance in the hands of citizens, the first name that popped in mind to label this utopian vision on surveillance was ‘Inverse Surveillance’. After a quick Google search, we found out that this term has actually been used before, so we did a deep dive into the literature. We soon learned that Inverse Surveillance is often used as a synonym (or translation) for sousveillance (Mann, 2004), and also mentioned in relation to counter-surveillance. However, neither of these concepts fully captures what we were going for. We decided to flesh out this concept a bit more and write down what we think are the main distinctions between the different types of surveillance. 

For those interested, we will publish how we came to these distinctions and our definition of inverse surveillance based on the literature in another post, but in this post, we will focus on the table below, and our conclusions.

SousveillanceInverse Surveillance
SubjectBottomTopTop & BottomTop
ActionSurveillanceEvading & UnderminingSurveillance & gaining more insight and involvementSurveillance
GoalControlling and Influencing subjectCounter-reaction against surveillance of citizensCounter-reaction against surveillance of citizensControlling and influencing subject
Power DynamicCentralization of PowerChallenging institutional power asymmetriesReversing the balance of power (hierarchical sousveillance); levelling the balance of power (personal sousveillance).Democratisation of Power


Although ‘surveillance’ is also an umbrella term for the other concepts, in its colloquial use surveillance refers to The systematic monitoring (surveillance) of citizens (bottom) by governments or bigger organizations (top), in order to influence and control them (goal) and thus exercise power (power dynamic) (Ball et al., 2012; Hier & Greenberg, 2014; Lyon, 2007).


In the case of counter-surveillance, citizens (bottom) actively evade and undermine surveillance by governments and bigger organizations (top) as a counter-reaction to the surveillance of citizens (goal) and by doing so are challenging institutional power asymmetries (power dynamic) (Monahan, 2006).


Sousveillance happens when citizens (bottom) are surveilling governments and bigger organizations (top) with the goal to gain more insight and involvement into surveillance, as a counter-reaction against the surveillance of citizens (goal) and by doing so reversing or leveling the power balance (power dynamic) (Mann, 2004; Mann et al., 2002). 

Conceptualizing a fourth surveillance type

The exact definition of sousveillance is quite broad. Some articles focus on sousveillance as a means of gaining insight into surveillance done by governments and bigger organizations by surveilling the agent itself. In most articles, sousveillance often takes a ‘stance against’ surveillance. In other articles, all surveillance activities in which citizens partake in surveillance are included in the sousveillance concept. 

The latter is a bit closer to what we aim to focus on. Thus according to existing terminology, our project would fall under sousveillance. We, however, wanted to make one clear distinction between the ‘anti’ movement also present within sousveillance. And thus we decided to separate the term inverse surveillance from sousveillance and give it a bit more depth. Whether we can view our definition of inverse surveillance as part of the umbrella term sousveillance or not is up for debate but not what we are focussing on. 

Our definition
Inverse Surveillance

In the case of inverse surveillance, citizens (bottom) surveil governments and bigger organizations (top) in order to control and influence (goal) and thus promote transparency and equality, and by doing so democratizing power (power dynamic).

This definition is not definite yet, and it might change during the research. But we wanted to offer a clear starting point for fleshing out a new surveillance concept. 

What we want to emphasize with this distinction is that our perspective on surveillance as a method is closer to surveillance than it is to sousveillance. In our case the focus is not surveillance itself, surveillance is seen as a mere tool that we deem helpful in exercising power, control, and influencing the subject. The difference with surveillance, however, and what puts us in line with sousveillance is that in our case surveillance is done from the bottom to the top.

Facilitating Inverse Surveillance through Artificial Intelligence

Our suggestion to deepen the definition of Inverse Surveillance is the product of technological advancements through which ideas like these are becoming more realistic for the first time in history. In Foucault’s (1977) book, surveillance can only be used by those in power, due to the extensive resources needed to conduct large-scale surveillance (for example, by having a police force that can patrol). With the rise of AI, we no longer need hundreds of eyes to watch data, videos, or images. This makes AI a realistic tool not only for organizations to monitor individuals but also for individuals monitoring organizations, without needing the extensive resources organizations have. For this reason, our project focuses on employing AI to facilitate Inverse Surveillance.

Utopian Vision on Inverse Surveillance AI 

In this project, we focus on a utopian way of thinking. We realize that there are also many side effects to AI such as ethical complications, and these studies from a dystopian perspective are therefore also much needed. However, within this project, we are mainly looking for solutions, and innovative ideas to get this concept off the ground. Thus, from a utopian perspective, we focus not only on the possibilities of inverse surveillance but also on the broader role AI can play in society in this regard.

Throughout this project, our definition of inverse surveillance as elaborated upon here will serve as a starting point for our research. Building on this, we will focus on the utopian vision and the practical application of AI in the context of Inverse Surveillance. 


  1. Ball, K., Haggerty, K., & Lyon, D. (2012). Routledge handbook of surveillance studies (Routledge international handbooks). Abingdon, Oxon ; New York: Routledge
  2. Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. New York: Pantheon Books.
  3. Hier, S., & Greenberg, J. (2014). Surveillance power, problems, and politics. Vancouver: UBC Press.
  4. Lyon, D. (2007). Surveillance studies : An overview. Cambridge, UK ; Malden, MA: Polity.
  5. Mann, S. (2004). Sousveillance: inverse surveillance in multimedia imaging. Proceedings of the 12th ACM International Conference on Multimedia, New York, NY, USA, October 10-16, 2004. 620-627. DOI: 10.1145/1027527.1027673.
  6. Mann, S., Nolan, J., & Wellman, B. (2002). Sousveillance: Inventing and Using Wearable Computing Devices for Data Collection in Surveillance Environments. Surveillance & Society, 1(3), 331-355.
  7. Monahan, T. (2006). Counter-surveillance as Political Intervention? Social Semiotics, 16(4), 515-534.