Crossing Lenses: Policing's New Visibility and the Role of ‘Smartphone Journalism’ as a Form of Freedom-Preserving Reciprocal Surveillance

43 Pages Posted: 9 Jan 2014 Last revised: 12 Jun 2014

Date Written: January 8, 2014


Citizens recording police, a form of action that has been termed “sousveillance” (surveillance from underneath) or the “participatory panopticon,” has become increasingly common in recent years. Citizen media can have a substantial impact on policing and police image management – and thus effect public perceptions of police legitimacy. On the other hand, police departments are increasingly utilizing sophisticated visual surveillance technologies, such as officer-mounted wearable cameras, to document police-citizen encounters. In some states, eavesdropping statutes have been applied against citizens attempting to record encounters with police officers, often while these same statutes contain exemptions for officer-initiated recordings. Courts have begun to weigh in on the legal rights of citizens documenting police action – and the constitutionality of the state eavesdropping laws that prohibit such conduct – and have generally begun to recognize a First Amendment constitutional right to film police in public spaces. However, the continued proliferation of recording devices and smartphone applications designed to allow citizens to covertly record encounters with police officers in efforts to hold public officials accountable put some users (perhaps even unwittingly) at serious legal risk. This situation presents a distinct problem – a problem of one-sided surveillance power and limited transparency that potentially threatens the Constitutional rights and freedoms of American citizens. This paper examines, theoretically, the role that citizen media should play as a liberty-preserving form of reciprocal transparency, what forms of respect ought to be owed by camera-wielding citizens to the police officers and other subjects of their recordings in public spaces, and what moral and legal obligations citizen journalists may have (or may not have) to respect and obey wiretapping laws that prohibit recording in public spaces without all-party consent.

Keywords: surveillance, law, citizen media, citizen journalism, recording, policing, wearable cameras, political theory, ethics, eavesdropping, First Amendment, privacy, police

Suggested Citation

Newell, Bryce Clayton, Crossing Lenses: Policing's New Visibility and the Role of ‘Smartphone Journalism’ as a Form of Freedom-Preserving Reciprocal Surveillance (January 8, 2014). 2014 Journal of Law, Technology and Policy 59, 2014. Available at SSRN:

Bryce Clayton Newell (Contact Author)

University of Kentucky ( email )

Lexington, KY 40506
United States

Register to save articles to
your library


Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics