The 21st-Century Peep Show

Big Brother's got you under surveillance. But so does little sister.

In a photo that popped up in mid April on the website, two guys stand on a fire escape. The one smiling on the right is a blond wearing a black hoodie and white sneakers. The one on the left, in a baseball cap, glasses, and a T-shirt that reads "Texas Wins," has the fly down on his olive cargo pants. In his right hand, he holds his penis.

This is all we know for certain. Is Tex a jackass who is about to take a piss—or a jackass who saw a pretty woman and willfully exposed himself? Did the woman who snapped the shot run to find her camera when she looked out her window and thought she saw two guys peeing? Or did the duo notice her first and feel inspired to get audacious, motivating her to pull a camera phone from her pocket to take revenge?

Because Holla Back's mission is to fight street harassment—by photographing catcallers and posting pictures on its site—we are to assume the latter. Some other photos are accompanied by detailed accounts of offensive overtures, but here, a woman identified as "Shana" simply wrote, "Right out my third story window . . . this is SO annoying." Without much to go on, viewers must decide what's happening. As Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) points out, sites like Holla Back may open a door to misuse or defamation.

Cabbie Melissa Plaut: I sometimes find myself wishing I had something other than a camera to shoot them with."
Cabbie Melissa Plaut: I sometimes find myself wishing I had something other than a camera to shoot them with."

Internet and privacy experts are not surprised at the emergence of cyber-vigilantes like Holla Back. "Any human being with access to the Internet can pub lish for free an image or text and have it accessed by anybody, anywhere in the world," notes John Palfrey, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law. "But public awareness of the effect of that on your privacy rights hasn't caught up with the fact of the technology and the way people now use it."

Whether the guys are the libidinous and power-hungry types the group targets or jokers who decided it was a good idea to piss outside in broad daylight, it's tough to imagine what claims to privacy they might make. If the grandma of ol' Texas Wins is trawling the Internet one night and spots a photo of him on his fire escape, supporters of Holla Back ask, doesn't it serve Tex right?

"It's certainly true that people behave inappropriately, and enforcing norms is difficult," says Daniel Solove, George Washington University Law School professor and author of The Digital Person. "On the other hand, doing something like this opens a Pandora's box of other problems." At a time when New York officials have just announced the installation of hundreds more cameras throughout the city, can surveil lance via citizen be a positive development? Moreover, who watches the watchdogs when the watchdogs become avengers?

Sam Carter, one of Holla Back's founders, gets almost as animated talking about the camera phone technology that enabled Tex's online debut as he does about the notion of fighting street harassment itself. The technology Holla Back employs is easy to operate, cheap, and ubiquitous, and the decision to harness it for the site was a "no-brainer," Carter says. With one click, a woman can seize a kind of power usually unavailable to her by snapping a photo of the macho man on the sidewalk who moved in too close, saying, "Girl, I can smell you"—to name one real-life example. With another click, she can send that photo to Holla Back, where Carter, the site's unofficial webmaster, and others upload it to the Web for worldwide viewing.

The power derived from witnessing, documenting—invading privacy even just a bit—is typically associated with the federal government, the NYPD, and big corporations, Carter points out. Holla Back, says Carter, demonstrates that "you can fight the oppressive network of surveillance by documenting things yourself. . . . We all can walk around with cameras as opposed to cops or government having them in the city."

There's a term in academia for the practice Carter describes—University of Toronto engineering professor Steve Mann coined it to mean the opposite of surveillance. "Sousveillance" is looking from below, turning the lens on the higher-ups, altering the power dynamic. For techie futurist types like Mann, the camera phone is just one stop on a fast train to the cameras all citizens will eventually wear on their heads, eyeglass-style; The Transparent Society author David Brin calls these devices "rodney kings."

Rodney King the person was assaulted by police officers, and Abu Ghraib, a more recent example of sousveillance, involved cameras that captured military abuses. With sites like Holla Back—where citizens are schooling other citizens, not righting Big Brother's wrongs—come questions of privacy, ethics, and the law that aren't getting answered as fast as the pace of newer and more sophisticated gadgets entering the market.

One well-publicized example of citizen-on-citizen sousveillance—the event that inspired seven activists to create Holla Back—occurred when a Manhattan raw-food restaurateur was camera-phoned mid-masturbation on the subway last August by a woman who then posted the photo online. After the man was subsequently identified, one blogger wrote, "It's also good to see the Big Brother phenomenon (cameras everywhere you look) working out in the average citizen's favor for once . . . . What do you mean they're useless?! They can solve crimes!!"

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