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Social media usage open to abuse

After the horrible riots in the UK, the country's Prime Minister David Cameron probably had the support of many people when he said: “And as I said yesterday, no phoney human rights concerns about publishing photographs will get in the way of bringing these criminals to justice.”

It is a horrendous statement in the mouth of a democratically-elected leader and panders to current fear and concerns. It would be a ridiculous statement if Cameron and others were not so serious about tossing out the civil liberties of everyone to catch a few criminals.

For example, Cameron also wants to ban rioters, or those encouraging a riot, from texting or from using social media services such as Twitter or Facebook.

The police use of social media to try and get the public to identify rioters caught in the act by one of London's many surveillance cameras is a smart and valid tactic, but only if faces are recognisable. But in fact, many of the “faces” I saw on the site were hazy, in shadow, or covered up: unrecognisable.

Such photos open the way for people to “identify” their enemies to the police and get them entangled in the vengeful crackdown now underway in the UK against riot suspects. If a person didn't like someone and could reasonably point out similarities in dress and body shape, they would at least get the police interested.

I would hope the courts would throw out such “evidence” of wrongdoing except in very clear cases where a person is recognisable on camera and is in the act of committing an offence. This is not a “phoney” human rights concern. This is a real legal concern - over human rights.

With every occurrence of violent social misbehaviour, comes an excuse or temptation to intrude on the civil liberties of law-abiding citizens - most of us. And with every encroachment of our personal freedoms and privacy, made easier by technology, democratic countries move closer to the level of control as found from Syria to China.

The second bigger concern is the contemplation of legislation restricting the use of communications technologies and social networks to those suspected of encouraging rioting. Political lesson: if you make a mistake at your job as a politician or as a law enforcer then it's best to blame “technology” - in particular, social media rather than social causes.

The tactic avoids focus on the policies a political might have inherited or put in place - such as cuts to social support schemes and to the police force - or a lack of jobs.

No one debates the need for greater public safety when such anti-social events occur, but the proposal for new, more restrictive laws relating to the use of technology have a great potential for abuse by politicians and the police. They could be used as an easy way to do their jobs in ordinary circumstances.

This is what's called “legislative deception”, a term made popular after the 2001 destruction of the World Trade Centre buildings in New York, and later, the 2005 bomb attacks in London. In the face of terror and public fear, many countries brought in tougher laws to fight terrorism, and only terrorism.

The use of the law showed that promises that curbs on freedom without judicial authority would only be used in exceptional cases will not be kept. For example, in the UK the anti-terrorism law was evoked to suppress a peaceful protest against a nuclear power plant in 2003. It was used again in 2007 to stop, search and detain without charge climate change protestors at Heathrow airport.

The current move to ban people wholesale from access to mobile communications and social network without going through the courts will end up the same way. The call is based on the fact that many rioters reportedly used the BlackBerry Messenger service to organise raids on shops and businesses.

In the US this is called “flash mobbing”, where groups of youth use texting or social media to gather at a store and steal from it. In the UK, BlackBerry has cooperated with the police and is apparently supplying information on those who sent messages via its network encouraging others to riot or storm stores.

All this without a judge's decision. Even without laws, the police already using information gathered from communications networks to hunt down the innocent. A 20-year-old UK man is now charged with “encouraging or assisting in the commission of an offence” under the UK's serious crime laws - for trying to organise a mass water fight.

As the Guardian points out, many of the mass water fights organised in the UK through social networks were peaceful affairs. The newspaper then notes that Iran's morality police recently arrested some of those participating in a mass water fight in Tehran earlier this month.

No one is saying democratic UK is anything like Iran. However, the comparison is chilling.

With great technology comes great power. It must be used freely and regulated wisely, and not in a climate of fear and control.

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Published August 17, 2011 at 10:00 am (Updated August 17, 2011 at 10:44 am)

Social media usage open to abuse

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