On the dangers of crowdsourced surveillance

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My blog post for Harvard Business today looks at the troubling online reaction to last night’s riots in Vancouver. Reflecting on the widespread enthusiasm for using social media to track down criminals, I wrote:

I don’t think we want to live in a society that turns social media into a form of crowdsourced surveillance. When social media users embrace Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and blogs as channels for curating, identifying and pursuing criminals, that is exactly what they are moving toward.

The reaction to my post has been intense. Many people seem to read my concerns about social media surveillance as an argument to let rioters off the hook. On the contrary: I hope that everyone who engaged in criminal activity last night is held accountable.

But there is a big difference between individuals cooperating with law enforcement — carefully, thoughtfully and with discretion, to reflect the presumption of innocence — and an online mob that has taken the job of law enforcement into its own hands. A Facebook page is gathering pictures and comments from thousands of people who are offering to help identify riot participants. A Tumblr site is crowdsourcing the creation of a Vancouver 2011 Riot Criminal List. And now Premier Christy Clark is going beyond a simple request to share pictures with police, and suggesting that people do so publicly:

Vancouver police are asking people to email their photos and videos to robbery@vpd.ca, or post information through Twitter at #VPD.

What makes this especially peculiar is the the Vancouver Police Department’s own statement encourages people to submit photos via email, and to share their videos privately on YouTube.

The fact that the police department itself is encouraging people to share their photos and videos privately should tell us a lot about the troubling territory social media users have wandered into. There is a reason that the state has been defined by its monopoly on the legitimate use of force: delegating law enforcement to professional police is a way of preventing vigilantism, ensuring due process and protecting civil rights.

Just as crucially, professional law enforcement protects a healthy civil society from the corrosive effects of citizen surveillance. When citizens take on the job of reporting on one another it can lead to some very dark places, very quickly. One of the most difficult revelations to emerge in the wake of German reunification was the sheer number of civilians who cooperated with the Stasi, East Germany’s notorious secret police. About 5% of East Germans were secret informants, a culture of crowdsourced surveillance that eroded social trust and perpetuated an authoritarian state.

Precisely because social media is such a powerful tool of mass mobilization, it has the potential to turn selective cooperation with law enforcement into a mass culture of surveillance. That’s a culture in which a key responsibility of law enforcement — the tricky job of surveillance — is outsourced to citizens instead.

Police forces are typically major proponents of gun control because they know exactly what is at stake when citizens begin to take the law into their own hands.  And “taking the law into your own hands” doesn’t have to involve administering vigilante justice with a gun. It can look like people creating their own Wanted posters. It can look like employers making decisions based on online information instead of criminal records. It can look like organizing a mass, volunteer corps of police informants — exactly what is going on today.

We have seen Big Brother, and he is us.

58 Comments on this site

  1. Paula Simons

    Hi Alexandra,
    I was a guest speaker today at the national conference in Edmonton of Information and Privacy officers from across the country. I raised this very issue, and was disheartened at the response. Most of the privacy professionals I spoke to seemed to have no trouble with this social trend – they saw it as public-spirited, as proof that people wanted to side with the forces of law and order. But then, as I pointed out, lynch mobs did too. It’s hard to make an argument against virtual vigilantes without sounding like you’re “soft” on rioters. I’d like all these yobs rounded up and jailed. But I too am uncomfortable at the blurring the roles here. It is not my job, as a member of the media, to do police surveillance work. It shouldn’t be the role of self-appointed “citizen journalists” either….

  2. Gunther

    Yea, this is exactly like the Stasi. Great analogy. Except for the fact that, as far as I know, Canada isn’t a repressive, dictatorial communist regime. And the police force doesn’t work secretively. In most cases, people spied on each other in East Germany because they HAD to, not because they wanted to. 

  3. Lesli Boldt

    I have to admit something I’m not proud of that completely illustrates your point. 

    Today, I posted the cover of the Kamloops Daily News – of a cheering rioter standing in front of a burning car, doing the “devil’s horns,” and tweeted that “I bet this guy will get arrested.” Two of my followers called me on my shit and reminded me that this man was celebrating a criminal act, but not committing one. He may have thought setting that car on fire was a good idea…but there’s nothing to suggest that he actually committed the act.

    Thanks for calling us on our collective shit on this one. Our own online mob mentality can take over.

  4. Raul Pacheco

    After poring over hundreds of blog pages (and seeing some scaringly-anonymous self-appointed vigilantes), I’m beginning to see the actual core of your argument, Alex. I think the crux of the problem is the pre-assumption of photographed people being guilty before we have the empirical evidence to prove it (e.g. the absence of an “innocent until proven guilty” framework).

    As someone who studies the evolution of rules and norms, and the behavior of transnational communities, it’s troubling for me to see now, after reading so many comments and blog posts, that indeed the route that people are taking is a public online lynching process rather than the obviously more desirable private, helpful process of providing the VPD with the information they will need to prosecute and convicte these thugs.

    From a neo-institutional perspective, I think the crux of the problem and what I’m trying to wrap my head around is – what made the institutions of civility and self-regulation collapse? Why did people that would have probably been part of a common group of friends, perhaps even friends of ours, participate in a mob like this? Institutions are created to govern agents’ behavior and the problem is, in this case, neither the rioter nor the citizen surveillant are being regulated nor governed. There is no institution, and a world without institutions is doomed for collapse. 

  5. Masey

    When all is said and done, it must be considered that this online “mob reaction” this time around is perhaps born out of complete disgust by a majority of Vancouverites towards a small amount of small minded people who perpetrated these crimes.

    Sure, civil libertarians are probably squirming somewhat with how publicly this is all being played out, but whether these individuals showing up in the photos and movies were directly responsible for committing the fires, property damage and looting, or if they were simply and moronically celebrating the fact that their city was burning, the responsible citizens of Vancouver want to know who these people are. 

    They want to know who doesn’t respect the city they love. They want to know who is responsible for tainting Vancouver’s near-angelic International standing. And they want to know who is responsible for their hard-earned tax dollars being wasted away on unnecessary resultant civil repairs.

    Everyone simply wants to contribute and know they are doing some good when it comes to restoring the face of a city they love dearly and call home. In the digital age of social media, this crowd sourced surveillance is an easily accessible and readily available option and is therefore why I think it’s naturally the route that has been taken.

    This current trend is a big response to what has been a big news story and a huge disappointment for Vancouver’s citizens. I don’t think for a moment that this is going to result in the development of an online vigilante community. To suggest otherwise is just being sensationalistic.

  6. Rob Boshaw

    Agreed.

    If you are photographed at the scene, but there is no evidence you did anything, you have nothing to worry about. Video is another story…

    I say we round up the little bastards and send them to a remote location in the interior for a year or two. They can have all the anarchy they want and live in non-peace by themselves. Jerks.

  7. davidp

    I guess I think it is deliciously ironic that the public forum in which the riot played out will also be part of the consequence for those who perpetrated the worst acts, and also for those who tacitly supported their actions by taking the opportunity for some networked infamy by basking in the flames and rubble.

    And, speaking of “neo.”  I think it’s neo-hokum to suggest that the public outing of buffoons is akin to lynching.

    In this case the consequence is a one:one match for the stupidity of the acts.

  8. Alexandra Samuel

    Brendan, you pinpoint the key distinction here: between using (traditional and social) media to scrutinize state power, and using media to extend that power. These situations are not two sides of the same coin: they are crucially different in their institutional and historical context.  

    We have a mechanism for holding our fellow citizens to account: it’s called the justice system. The whole reason we have police, courts, and laws is so that citizens do not take justice into their own hands. You don’t have to look very far to see why it’s dangerous when they do.

    But in delegating this power to government, we run other risks. That’s why most democratic societies have significant checks on law enforcement and the justice system: to ensure that the state’s monopoly of force is not abused. We have police oversight boards, ombudsmen, appeals courts and of course, the media.  And in fact one way the traditional media safeguards its ability to act as a check on the justice system is by handing over evidence to the police (photos, info, etc) only when required to by a warrant.

    When traditional media starts to act as an arm of the state — as it does in a great many authoritarian countries, which typically exert strong control over the press as part of their hold on power — we put democracy at risk. Social media can build on its early commitment to upholding democratic values by recognizing that, like traditional journalists,  we need to maintain an arm’s length relationship to law enforcement. That doesn’t preclude individual citizens from sharing information with police; it precludes using social media as a self-organizing surveillance system.

  9. Alexandra Samuel

    Your choice of terminology — describing what is happening online as a “mob reaction” — is very telling. What we are seeing is indeed mob mentality. Perhaps we won’t find the next outlet for online vigilantism tomorrow. But once we embrace the idea that social media can and should turn us into a self-organizing surveillance system, we are on a very dangerous path indeed.

  10. Alexandra Samuel

    Given the number of security cameras, TV cameras and police cameras on site, I hardly think that the rioters made a rational calculation that they would go unrecognized. And we don’t need to put images on Facebook for those criminals to be apprehended. You can help the cops the way they’ve asked: by sharing your photos with them directly, and not by posting them so the online mob can work its magic.

  11. Alexandra Samuel

    Sandy, you raise a compelling point: that by transparently collecting and sharing evidence, we may actually make the justice system more accountable. It’s not hard to imagine a defense lawyer combing through online photos in order to find pictures that put a defendant’s actions in a different context. 

    But the tenor of the crowdsourced riot response shows the risks that come with this benefit. Folks are posting “wanted” posters on Facebook, putting people’s names online as criminals…all without benefit of due process. As others have pointed out, this could ultimately lead to claims of defamation.

    My concern is not so much with the impact on the rioters themselves, however. What I’m worried about is the impact on the rest of us. When we throw out due process, when we take it upon ourselves to create our own self-organizing system for rounding up criminals, we change our relationship to one another as citizens. I want my cops in uniform, not (just) because they look cute, but because it lets me know that everybody else on the street is there as a private citizen: my notional equal and partner in conversation, in community, in creating a democratic society. Put on a uniform and you change the power relationship. Take all the uniforms away — turn any citizen into a potential informant — and we lose the equality that is necessary to a free society.

  12. Alexandra Samuel

    Mike, thanks so much for this comment and your tweet. I’m glad to hear there are others with this concern.

  13. Alexandra Samuel

    You raise a great point, Charlie: what makes this any worse than people tagging their friends in Facebook photos?

    On first glance, it’s not. But that’s not because Facebook tagging is fine: it’s because Facebook tagging is worrying. In fact one of the ironies of this situation is that the social media community is embracing a phenomenon — online surveillance — that is usually a source of outrage. As many have pointed out, there is lots of potential for abuse in the kind of information that others share about us online (see, for example, this post picking up on Leone Kraus: http://www.alexandrasamuel.com/career-work/10674) and one of the things I love love love about the Internet community is the way it typically SCREAMS whenever social media is used as a surveillance tool.

    What makes this particular instance especially troubling is it’s not one or two employers using online information to fire people, or one or two people getting outed. It’s actually a conscious mass effort to turn social media into an extension of law enforcement. And that (as I’ve outlined above) isn’t equivalent to using social media as a check on law enforcement powers.

  14. Alexandra Samuel

    What a concise and thoughtful comment. Thank you.

  15. Alexandra Samuel

    Once we start talking about rounding people up, we are on a very frightening path. This is exactly why the online mob scares me.

  16. Laura

    I looked at the riot picture sites. I saw a lot of fake pictures, like some black guy holding a rifle in a Wal Mart except there isn’t a Wal Mart in downtown Vancouver. 

    I noted that a lot of people were tagging riot pictures with names of people they wanted to “tease.” That’s not funny; it’s irresponsible. 

    Then there were the folks posting Facebook wall comments – with full names – from goons allegedly bragging about being in the riot. How do we know? 

    This is not prima facie evidence; it is a social media lynch mob. It scares me that there’s no moderation. At least the riot had a police presence.  

  17. Laura Mogus

    Hi Alex,

    How I appreciate your cogent thinking and lone voice in the wilderness.  Any civil society absolutely needs people like you at the table urging more thoughtfulness in what can be a naive rush to embrace a new use of social media for the “greater good.”  For this I applaud you and would hope that you would always be invited to help clarify potential ethical breaches and design checks and balances to an ever emergent system.  That said, I do not totally agree with you.  
    Usually I am the first to be convinced by slippery slope arguments, as my mind also tends to trace such trajectories and comparisons.  However, I see a slippery slope different than the one you trace to the Stasi of East Germany.  Namely, the passive bystander effect bemoaned and grieved by theorists from Barbara Coloroso to Carol Gilligan, from Lawrence Kohlberg to Romeo Dallaire.  

    What you call vigilanteism in fact does not distinguish between those acting from vengeance/groupthink (perhaps to be less cynical let’s say mixed motives) vs. those acting as free agents of a democratic society that does indeed have the presumption of innocence as a check and balance, chose to collect evidence of just laws being broken.  And speaking specifically of these individuals and not of those whose photos were a form of passive consumption of disaster and rubbernecking, I believe that they acted with integrity and a post-conventional degree of moral development.  

    I do not believe forming human chains in front of stores is vigilanteism, nor is being the lone man beaten for trying to stop looters.  Equally, I’m glad that some individuals without prIor intent, expectation of reward or coercion by the state gathered evidence of laws they believed in being broken.  I’m glad that they acted independently from the state monopoly of law and order experts.  Indeed, moral research, (which is a field with an enormous amount of research backing it and very replicable ways of categorizing stages of moral development depending upon how people behave in given situations) would agree.  At the conventional level of moral development, there is a reliance on the State to take care of all law and order and other human welfare concerns.  Equally, nonaction is explained by it “not being my responsibility”, and action explained by “my ‘boss’ told me to do it.”  Only in post-conventional moral development do we see individuals, like Romeo Dallaire, seeking to act independently.  When asked, they almost always respond that they felt they had no choice because it is the right thing to do.  These are the heros that stop bullies and massacres and are whistleblowers and hide Jews and do all manner of independent action.  They film Rodney King being beaten and while they feel morally obliged to break unjust laws, they feel equally bound to protect just laws (a la MLK).  So your distinction between public pages of photos and privately sending them to the VPD is valid, but I disagree that we must leave law and order in the hands of the State and its surveillance cameras etc.  

    In any case, for those of postconventional moral perspective, this would be impossible to do.  

    So while you rightly abhore the actions of groupthink to which persons of preconventional and even conventional moral development can become vulnerable to, your argument makes what is known in Integral theory circles as the “pre/trans fallacy”.  You group all the pre and post conventional actions together and in doing so disparage the leading lights of a society.

    Yours in love and respect, 
    Laura Mogus

  18. Duane Storey

    I don’t really understand why the terminology citizen surveillance is being applied here.  It’s not like people are walking around with video cameras mounted to their heads at all times.  For many people, they witnessed crimes taking place and decided to take pictures or video what they were seeing.  I don’t look at that like citizen surveillance, I look at that as civic duty.

    I have no issues with people trying to identify some of the purpretrators of crimes using social media. I look at that as no different than shows like Crime Stoppers asking for help, or the Kiosks being set up after the 1994 Riots.  We are just using today’s tools instead of the ones available years ago.  I do have a problem with some of the comments on these sites though asking people to call schools and parents – I think that is out of line, and represents a mob mentality or vigilante justice.  I don’t support that.

    I also don’t agree that this is a threat to democracy.  The fourth estate has always been fundamental to democracy, and I look at the evolution of social media as simply a natural extension to that.  

  19. Greg

    Your points about social media and state authority are interesting, but I think you’re missing the bigger picture here. The consequences for the individuals pictured in the riots aren’t just criminal – they’re social. I think we may be seeing the first steps toward building a reputation economy, where your good and bad deeds are available for all to see, and will follow you through life.

    The people who took part in the smashing and burning should be prosecuted, and thanks to the photos and videos we’ve seen over the past few days, many of them will. But what of the people who are simply revelling in the destruction? While not criminally responsible, that sort of anti-social behavior is morally repugnant and should be discouraged. By sharing these images and naming and shaming those involved, we will start to see thuggish behavior carry real world consequences.

    In a small town, this would happen naturally. If you’re the jerk who’s cheering while a thug puts a brick through the grocer’s window, you’re not going to be too popular around town. The anonymity of cities breaks this model of civic accountability. Naming-and-shaming restores it.

    I see this as both terrifying and exciting. It will likely have chilling effects on political expression and on whatever society currently deems to be deviant behavior. However, it will also force accountability where the anonymity of big cities had eliminated it.

    The pieces of a reputation economy are all falling into place. We all have high definition video cameras with us at almost all times. Almost everyone has a Facebook account linked to their real identity, and they have recently enabled facial recognition for uploaded photos. We have digital devices tracking our movements in real time in our pockets. It won’t be too long before someone figures out a way to join these pieces together into a karma database.

    This is the world we have built, and quite honestly I doubt many of us would want to un-make it. We will have to try to organize it in a way that maximizes the benefits of complete transparency and minimizes the chilling effects of total loss of privacy.

  20. Lynne Polischuik

    While I do agree that posting pictures and videos online and creating ‘Wanted’ posters for people is troubling, submitting photos and evidence to law enforcement is not. Whether I am photographing a police officer using what I feel to be excessive force or a rioter looting a store, that evidence needs to be in the hands of someone capable of acting on it and meting out appropriate justice. This isn’t ‘surveillance’ and I think your comparing this to the Stasi is sensationalist, irresponsible and lazy. We can work with our law enforcement agencies to protect our communities and the people who live in them. Crime Stoppers existed long before social media ever did. As far as I can tell it hasn’t morphed Canada into some kind of authoritarian regime.

  21. Raul Pacheco

    Let me just say that I absolutely adore Laura Mogus for this comment (you need to be on Twitter, Laura – I found Jason’s but not yours). You make an extremely good distinction, Laura. There are those who are heroes and brave souls who defend their city from attackers and those who are acting as online vigilantes. I’m going to sadly say that we already have those online vigilantes. I worry about the consequences of this online exposure. Will people actually physically cause bodily harm because they know them? Chris Parsons put it perfectly – now the online scarlet letter-branded individuals will walk within our society, and who knows if anybody will take it upon themselves to “seek retribution for what they did to our city and make them pay”, in the form of a physical assault. If this happens, the immense gains that we’ve obtained with the worldwide recognition of the power of social media  will be then lost because fingers will be pointed and people will accuse social media of having caused the demise or bodily harm of those who are being identified as rioters. 

  22. paulbel

    It scares me that there’s no moderation, too. But who would moderate? I think that might be even scarier.

  23. Alexandra Samuel

    Laura, what a helpful comment! You could give me hope that perhaps what we are seeing is not the slide towards a society of complicity, but a society of independent engagement and resistance.

    But.

    But I don’t think that is what is going on here. Read the Tumblr page or the Facebook riot pics page, and I don’t think you’ll see much evidence of post-conventional moral development. I think you’ll see groupthink, mob mentality, a desire to fight back and not a lot of willingness to engage with the deep thinking, ambiguity and potential consequences that a truly unconventional actor (like Dallaire) goes through on the path to acting with integrity.

    Yes, there are some people who are stepping up out of a sense of moral obligation. But I don’t see a lot of independent thought here. I see a mob.

  24. Alexandra Samuel

    Lynne, I think you draw the line in exactly the right place. There’s a world of difference between private cooperation with law enforcement, and mass mobilization into an online network of crime fighters. The Stasi isn’t meant as an analogy to where we are today: it’s meant as a lesson in the risks of where we are heading.

  25. paulbel

    Alexandra, I take your point about the difference between scrutinizing state power and extending it, but I’m not sure that there is any useful way to distinguish between  how social media (or any medium) can be used to choose between them. Citizens have always been able to be Collaborators or Resistors (to  use the WWII examples).  Americans and Canadians happily went along with Japanese internment without being coerced. The amount of public “scrutiny” of that shameful period was minimal. The Rodney King and

  26. paulbel

    Alexandra, I take your point about the difference between scrutinizing state power and extending it, but I’m not sure that there is any useful way to distinguish between  how social media (or any medium) can be used to choose between them. Citizens have always been able to be Collaborators or Resistors (to  use the WWII examples).  Americans and Canadians happily went along with Japanese internment without being coerced. The amount of public “scrutiny” of that shameful period was minimal. The Rodney King and

  27. paulbel

    Alexandra, I take your point about the difference between scrutinizing state power and extending it, but I’m not sure that there is any useful way to distinguish between  how social media (or any medium) can be used to choose between them. Citizens have always been able to be Collaborators or Resistors (to  use the WWII examples).  Americans and Canadians happily went along with Japanese internment without being coerced. The amount of public “scrutiny” of that shameful period was minimal. The Rodney King and

  28. paulbel

     It would be useful to make distinctions, if we can, regarding terms like “mob” “group” “collective” “community” and even “social media”.  What makes something “self-organizing”?  and is there a useful way to distinguish when that is good (community) and when it is bad (mob)?

    All small communities have self-organizing surveillance systems. We have always had social as well as legal ways of enforcing norms. Those social ways have always been vulnerable to co-option by the state. A savvy and moral citizenry has always been the only true protection, but citizens also make up mobs.

  29. paulbel

    Alexandra, I’m having trouble parsing the difference, if there is one, between “helping the cops” and “assisting the state”

  30. paulbel

     The existence of plainclothes police is surely not new to you, so what do we mean by “uniform” and what is a “private citizen”?  Presumably even a plainclothes cop has to observe certain rules (which might compromise his/r undercover credibility but have to be observed).  Yet police routinely lie (witness the inability to find the policeman who attacked the G20 protester). This is because they are also private citizens and because they don’t follow the rules that we want in place to protect abuse of power.

    So there is already a very blurry distinction between uniform and private citizen. Does posting images of rioting (and even lying about them) constitute something qualitatively different?

  31. Anonymous

    Alexandra: at this point most of the pros and cons of your blog have been discussed; however,  Sandy (above) made an excellent clarifying point about the one area where you stepped over a boundary – in my opinion. Why mention the Stasi at all? It is an analogy whether you want to call it that or not. Why? Simply because where and when it can be read as an analogy, your words have an unintended meaning. Or was it unintended?

    You said: The Stasi isn’t meant as an analogy to where we are today: it’s meant as a lesson in the risks of where we are heading.

    I am saying as Sandy does that your argument “conflates evidence gathering with prosecution…” and “in the case of the Stasi, the primary concern was that the justice
    system itself was  a tool of oppression, AND a captive citizenry was
    co-opted into participating in that corruption by informing on
    neighbours who sought to exercise basic freedoms”.

    You have replied to Sandy but you have not addressed the issue of why you felt it important to bring in the Stasi, if it was not to bring up an extreme emotional response to your posited argument where the logic and evidence should have been enough on their own without bringing in the hyperbole or fear technique.

    Finally, you talk of ‘the risks of where we are heading’. That one ‘potential’ concluding sentence of yours leads readers into believing you have some authority to state that we ARE heading there, not ‘could be heading there’.

    I believe your single point re the Stasi, destroyed much of what you were trying to impart – pity.

  32. Anonymous

    Alexandra: at this point most of the pros and cons of your blog have
    been discussed; however,  Sandy (above) made an excellent clarifying
    point about the one area where you stepped over a boundary – in my
    opinion. Why mention the Stasi at all? It is an analogy whether you want
    to call it that or not. Why? Simply because where and when it can be
    read as an analogy, your words have an unintended meaning. Or was it
    unintended?

    You said: The Stasi isn’t meant as an analogy to
    where we are today: it’s meant as a lesson in the risks of where we are
    heading.

    I am saying as Sandy does that your argument “conflates
    evidence gathering with prosecution…” and “in the case of the Stasi,
    the primary concern was that the justice
    system itself was  a tool of oppression, AND a captive citizenry was
    co-opted into participating in that corruption by informing on
    neighbours who sought to exercise basic freedoms”.

    You
    have replied to Sandy but you have not addressed the issue of why you
    felt it important to bring in the Stasi, if it was not to bring up an
    extreme emotional response to your posited argument where the logic and
    evidence should have been enough on their own without bringing in the
    hyperbole or fear technique.

    Finally, you talk of ‘the risks of
    where we are heading’. That one ‘potential’ concluding sentence of yours
    leads readers into believing you have some authority to state that we
    ARE heading there, not ‘could be heading there’.

    I believe your single point re the Stasi, destroyed much of what you were trying to impart – pity.

  33. F B

    thank you..  vigilantes finding social media an outlet for exacting revenge: not a world i’m looking forward to living in.. ~sigh~

  34. Kemp Edmonds

    I hear but crimestoppers has been welcoming people to do this type of thing forever and your comparison to east German informers is a major stretch.

    Who are any of us to tell people how they ‘should’ be using social media, seriously?

  35. Tommy

    On the facebook group you mention people are posting screen caps of people’s facebook status updates. Often the status updates simply indicate someone was at the riot but do not necessarily implicate the person in a crime. I’ve even seen a few cases of phone numbers and addresses being published. One girl had her facebook screen capped with her address and phone number. People commented below it saying they were texting her and calling her with harassing messages. One comment even called for her to be euthanized simply for being an attendee at the riot. Many comments were also racist and sexist. I fear that this could lead to vigilante justice. Someone could use the address to show up at her house. And the police and Global News are encouraging people to use that facebook group. I just think it is very disturbing and we are definitely hitting a slippery slope. It’s like the book 1984 which included private citizens snitching and spying on each other. And it’s amazing to me how many left wing critical thinkers are willing to accept this. I’ve had so many debates with people over this and they always think I’m defending the rioters.

  36. Andrew Frank

    With all due respect, this wasn’t surveillance. It was citizens using social media to be citizens and in this case to help make citizen arrests (a form of empowerment we should largely celebrate but with appropriate cautionary reminders) – there’s nothing wrong with it. Your concern while it makes sense from an intellectual exercise POV is overwrought and when taken at face value, fails to provide honest assessment or discussion of what crowd-sourced “surveillance” actually is or could be. 

    Best regards,

    Andrew.

  37. Ari Herzog

    If one chooses not share a video privately with the police but publishes it for the world to see, is that breaking the law?

  38. Andrew Frank

    To elaborate:The inability of our own progressive
    intellectuals and social media experts to analyze this and put it in
    meaningful perspective with accurate assessment and analogies mirrors the rioters’ own inability to riot for something real.With
    all due respect, this wasn’t surveillance. It was citizens using social
    media to be citizens and in this case to help make citizen arrests (a
    form of empowerment we should largely celebrate but with appropriate
    cautionary reminders). Your concern
    while it makes sense from an intellectual exercise POV is overwrought
    and when taken at face value, fails to provide honest assessment or
    discussion of what crowd-sourced “surveillance” actually is or could
    be.Talking about how scared we are of surveillance is a
    time-honored tradition among social scientists (sometimes with good cause), but applying it to this “new use” of social
    media is awfully convenient and feels intellectually lazy to me.Andrew.

  39. Coccinellidae

    Witnesses are called upon all the time to robbery’s, car accidents, rape, murder… crime stoppers is a perfect example, or block watch – my parents were part of block watch when we were kids and Olsen was still on the loose.   TIPS is another example.  America’s most wanted. These are all forms of citizen surveillance. 
    This is just another type of the same thing in a digital format.  I am beginning to worry that what the “social media-ists” are truly up set about is that their toy is being used for something serious and perhaps meaningful?  Just a thought 

  40. jasmine

     “rez ipsa loquitur”  Latin for “the thing speaks for itself” 

    ie:  photos & footage 

  41. N Allen

    Are you saying that there should be arrests made based on photos and footage? Maybe, but  “prima facie” is the legal term you’re looking for. It means “at first sight” and requires further investigation. Prima facie is equivalent to a smoking gun or maybe a burning car with someone cheering in front of it.

    Prima facie still has to be proven valid. The photos and footage don’t necessarily speak for themselves. That’s what the the legal system must determine. 

    During the trial, when they say, “Yes, Mr. GoonIdiot was at the scene. Here’s a picture of him. He also had gasoline all over his hands and here are six witnesses that identify him as the person in the photo who lit the car on fire….” then, and only then, can you say, “Res ipsa loquitur.”  

  42. Anonymous

    Alexandra, thanks for hosting and participating in this debate, I have enjoyed this post, the HBR post and their respective comments.

    Though I disagree with you that this is a negative direction. I think social media should be one of many tools that the police have at their disposal. Though we have to be careful on how this tool is used, as it can be for good or for bad. On the good side, you have the identification of rioters on the bad side you have false accusations and people calling for violence against the rioters.

    That being said, there needs to be a clear distinction between the surveillance of legal and illegal activities. This is a tool for facilitating the identification of people participating in illegal activities. I see this as improving the identification process, rather than giving a picture to the police and hope they can identify someone. This riot has show that person #1 can take a picture of random people, who are then identified  by persons #2, #4 and #6. Person #3 then sees this and remembers that he took photos of some of the same people, which person #5 then provides a witness statement after seeing #3’s photos, this would give police further areas to probe and possibly recommend charges.

    An example of this is Nathan K******. He was photographed lighting the gas tank of a police car. Over the next couple days, people posted images and videos of him making 3 attempts at lighting the police car from multiple angles and he was also shown starting a fire in a garbage bin (see the pattern?). Would we have known who he is, would he have surrendered himself if it was not posted all over the internet? We will never know the answer, but at least we now know who he is.

    I am assuming the lynch mob attitude mentioned is similar to the posts people make about hurting him, destroying his family, etc….. Essentially running him and his family out of town.  my response to this is simple, no authority for this has been delegated anywhere, people are still bound by the laws of canada in terms of libel, slander, assault, harassment, vigilantism, etc… This is people taking things too far and should not be condoned or tolerated. Should we let a few ignorant people that participated in a riot cause for the banning of large celebrations should in Vancouver? I hope the answer to this is “NO”. So why would we let a few ignorant posters destroy this tool.

    On your “twitter and be gay” post you mention the dangers of this type of surveillance.  This is where the distinction between legal and illegal activities comes in. I am not sure if existing laws are sufficient to protect people doing legal activities, if not, new laws should be created to protect people from the kinds of activities you refer to.

    I have yet to see any evidence that supports your claim that the state is “delegating” the use of physical force. Are you implying that the state would sanction someone assaulting Nathan K? Ordinary citizens have no right to prosecute or punish. Nor do I think there is any serious interest in delegating this authority, if I am wrong, please correct me on this.

    I don’t know about you, but I would prefer people filming and identifying illegal activity as they see it, rather than having a police officer on every corner monitoring our daily activities.

  43. Shoko Natsukawa

    Spoken like a true ivy league academic.
    If ‘big brother is now us’, then I suspect that Orwell is drinking dry gin in celebration somewhere on the Otherside. And I understand that people say that second chances redeem lives and make for better long term results. And I know Canadians love Olympics with a story.  All I’m saying — this guy is crying in public apology because he was apprehended. And it wasn’t the police who caught him. The court of public opinion has always exerted authority — but I will take that form of mob response than the one that launched the incident on Wednesday night. Public images on the internet may have collectively shamed, and it also motivated hundreds of people to take to the street in a communal act of peaceful cleanup.  Blog posts do nothing of the sort. Incidentally, my family endured a 9.0 earthquake in Tohoku region. Not a spot of rioting. How about a blog post on why Vancouverites burn shit over a hockey game? Please feel free to pull out your Zizek and indignation whole sale.

  44. Nic Slater

    Alex, while it is difficult at best to forecast what the future holds, I think it is very wise of you and forward thinking to be cautious of online “public” crowdsourcing for purposes of retribution by society. I suspect your experience in this area gives you the insight that  most of us will never have and that this public venue on your blog shows clearly how many simply do not understand the implications you originally referred to. The unreliable online content is a modern form of gossip mongering , rumour and innuendo that lends itself well to damaging reputations that may not deserve to be damaged.  Unfortunately, this “mob-sourcing” exercise will continue and we can only hope that sane heads will prevail as needed.

  45. Ed Lau

    Alright, let me ask you a different question then: what if the ONLY way to identify rioters was by posting them on Facebook. Let’s assume the police cannot properly identify the rioters. What if the police did not have the proper means to identify and the best way was to post it on Facebook and ask the masses?

    Perhaps the public shaming is out of order (I don’t think it is as long as the evidence is conclusive) but social media has been instrumental in identifying rioters that may have otherwise got away scot free.

  46. Ed Lau

    Whoops, I guess I clicked the wrong comment to reply to. Sorry but I assume you understand the context. If not, see your reply to my other comment.

  47. Richard

    The checks and balances you refer to are controls to prevent the arbitrary use of force and coercion by police services. No police service has the right to simply demand any information. However, a request for assistance is completely different as I have the ability to govern my actions. I often question the motives of the media as we have all heard the expression, “If it bleeds, it leads…” and know that every story needs a good “twist” before the traditional media will consider running it. Further, as lofty as they claim their ideals and goals are, they are a body corporate and have taskmasters to answer to.

    Let us return to the discussion at hand. Are you telling me that a traditional media source, upon the witnessing of serious crime, a crime that was recorded by them and them alone, would demand that the police obtain a warrant/subpoena before they offered any assistance? Perhaps but it is my hope the they would live up to their responsibilities as a corporate citizen just we natural persons should.

  48. Laktor

    Sorry, Alexandra, but your argument doesn’t hold water and quite frankly, I am appalled by your comments as THEY are truly disturbing. These rioters in Vancouver were clearly breaking the law, overturning and burning cars, looting, etc. That is a HUGE difference than some of the “big brother” type of situations you mention. Citizens were doing nothing more than what the police would be doing, that is, looking at street video cameras, store video, and bank cameras at ATM’s. The people taking photos and video of these criminal acts are helping to identify those involved. Those that are not guilty of any wrongdoing have nothing to worry about.

    Your argument, Alexandra, is more of a disturbing trend than what transpired on social media. I am very worried when respected people like yourself come up with this kind of disturbing argument.

  49. KateParker

    I respectfully disagree with your comments. Citizens were doing more than simply supplying police with photos and video to let them do the job of identifying and charging criminal behaviour. They have created websites to identify rioters and to publicly shame them. While the riot was truly horrendous, the implications of citizens informing on each other via social media needs to be examined and discusse more thoroughly. The author’s arguments are important, in my view.

  50. Laktor

     As long as people identify those individuals who they actually witness committing criminal acts (and who have taken pictures and/or
     video images) such as overturning and destroying vehicles, looting, destroying property, etc. I have NO problem in websites identifying those individuals. They should, of course, also, and most importantly, show these images to police, but even though all persons are innocent until proven guilty, we all have a right to know the names of those being charged. Therefore, in these circumstances, it’s perfectly all right with me to identify these criminals. I don’t know what you mean by “shaming”, but simply identifying by name or face those who are clearly caught on camera actually committing a crime DESERVE to be known by all. However, we have to be careful to not “shame”, as you say, any person simply standing around watching as they are not doing anything wrong. 

    And what the heck is wrong with citizens informing on each other via social media if they witness these individuals committing crimes? Are we all so stupid as to go by that idiotic code of silence saying that you simply don’t tell on others? Sorry, but if I witness a crime and catch it on camera, yes, I will tell the police, but I’ll also tell anyone I want to. These criminals deserve to be shamed, if that’s what you want to call it.

  51. Greg Kerr

    If he didn’t commit a crime then a judge shouldn’t and wouldn’t convict him of a crime in Criminal Court.  If he celebrated and encouraged a crime while acting in a manner deleterious to our society and our community he will be judged accordingly by society and our community. 

  52. Greg Kerr

    Yeah, anyone who agrees with me is thoughtful and concise too.  😉

  53. Greg Kerr

    As non-rioting citizens presented with a riot situation we have only so many basic choices or options:

    1) Turn a blind eye and let it happen while tsk-tsking,
    2) Physically try and stop the rioters ourselves,
    3) Outsource the physicality by hiring more helmetted riot cops and equip them with the ‘hard option’ tools of their trade such as battons, tazers and water cannons in order to put down the rioters by force,
    4) Accept pervasive police presence and/or ubiquitious CCTV coverage controlled by the State monitoring all citizens in our cities whether they are engaged in rioting or not,
    5) Take photographic evidence of unknown criminals and submit to the police,
    6) Take photographic evidence and put it online asking for crowdsource identification of the rioters before submitting the evidence to the police,
    7) Take photographic evidence and put it online asking for identification of the rioters then arrange retribution against the perpetrators either ourselves or by other citizens.

    I would suspect that 99% of the contributors to this blog, including Alexandra, would agree that Options 5 and 6 are the least undesirable options open to those of us who wish to protect our community from this disruptive and dangerous behavour.  Option 5 would be the least ‘troubling’ for Alexandra but probably not very effective for actually catching people in real life unless, of course, the police themselves simply enact Option 6 by asking for the public’s help to identify the people in the photos.

    Criminologists have shown time and again the likelihood of someone commiting a crime is basically controlled by their judgement of  “A” MULTIPLED BY “B” where A is their perceived chance of being caught and B is their assessment of the severity of the punishment.  For example if every single time someone went over the speed limit by 5KmH they copped a $30 fine then speeding would drop significantly.  Or conversely, if speeders were hardly ever caught but then 1 in 10,000 speeders were caught then executed – again speeding would also drop.  Personally I would rather see the emphasis in my communtiy be focussed on “A” than “B”. 

    Riots need to obtain a certain critical mass in order to happen and citizen surveillance, from this point forward, will hopefully affect the mental calculus of those present and prevent flashpoint from ever being reached.  This increased awareness of the likelihood of being exposed and being caught will have a trickle down effect from the hardcore smash, punch and burn types right down to those who simply watched and whoo-hoo-ed  These latter might not have technically committed any crimes but were definitely complicit. 

    Options 1 through 4 are unacceptable to me and I agree that Option 7 is truly obnoxious but also see Option 5 having very little real world effect.  This leaves Option 6 as my choice.  Hopefully, by increasing the perceived chance of people being caught if they engage in these community destroying behavours the riot never happens in the first place.  Less smashing of property, less violence, less oppressive police presence, less cracked heads, less criminal records and fewer ruined lives – not to mention the reduction of the load on our community’s legal and justice system.

  54. Greg Kerr

    As non-rioting citizens presented with a riot situation we have only so many basic choices or options:

    1) Turn a blind eye and let it happen while tsk-tsking,
    2) Physically try and stop the rioters ourselves,
    3) Outsource the physicality by hiring more helmetted riot cops and equip them with the ‘hard option’ tools of their trade such as battons, tazers and water cannons in order to put down the rioters by force,
    4) Accept pervasive police presence and/or ubiquitious CCTV coverage controlled by the State monitoring all citizens in our cities whether they are engaged in rioting or not,
    5) Take photographic evidence of unknown criminals and submit to the police,
    6) Take photographic evidence and put it online asking for crowdsource identification of the rioters before submitting the evidence to the police,
    7) Take photographic evidence and put it online asking for identification of the rioters then arrange retribution against the perpetrators either ourselves or by other citizens.

    I would suspect that 99% of the contributors to this blog, including Alexandra, would agree that Options 5 and 6 are the least undesirable options open to those of us who wish to protect our community from this disruptive and dangerous behavour.  Option 5 would be the least ‘troubling’ for Alexandra but probably not very effective for actually catching people in real life unless, of course, the police themselves simply enact Option 6 by asking for the public’s help to identify the people in the photos.

    Criminologists have shown time and again the likelihood of someone commiting a crime is basically controlled by their judgement of  “A” MULTIPLED BY “B” where A is their perceived chance of being caught and B is their assessment of the severity of the punishment.  For example if every single time someone went over the speed limit by 5KmH they copped a $30 fine then speeding would drop significantly.  Or conversely, if speeders were hardly ever caught but then 1 in 10,000 speeders were caught then executed – again speeding would also drop.  Personally I would rather see the emphasis in my communtiy be focussed on “A” than “B”. 

    Riots need to obtain a certain critical mass in order to happen and citizen surveillance, from this point forward, will hopefully affect the mental calculus of those present and prevent flashpoint from ever being reached.  This increased awareness of the likelihood of being exposed and being caught will have a trickle down effect from the hardcore smash, punch and burn types right down to those who simply watched and whoo-hoo-ed  These latter might not have technically committed any crimes but were definitely complicit. 

    Options 1 through 4 are unacceptable to me and I agree that Option 7 is truly obnoxious but also see Option 5 having very little real world effect.  This leaves Option 6 as my choice.  Hopefully, by increasing the perceived chance of people being caught if they engage in these community destroying behavours the riot never happens in the first place.  Less smashing of property, less violence, less oppressive police presence, less cracked heads, less criminal records and fewer ruined lives – not to mention the reduction of the load on our community’s legal and justice system.

  55. Greg Kerr

    It’s not your “job” to stop my kid from shoplifting a chocolate bar from the corner shop if you happen to see him doing just that.  But I hope you do it anyway.

  56. Laktor

     Also, please remember that city councillors of many cities have shamed “johns” who pick up prostitutes, not caring that this will hurt them for the rest of their lives, even if they never pick up a girl ever again. So, if it’s ok for them to do this, why shouldn’t we do the same for people who burn cars and loot? 

  57. futureman

     Not if you’re wrong.

  58. justsomeguy

    I was in the south area of the downtown and left before 8:30 pm. Shortly after that is when the BS started happening. There were more people wandering the streets filiming with their Iphones and even some $5,000 and up looking cameras than there were people looking to loot and riot IMO and I can tell you from experience in high profile security and liasing with police for nearly 20 years that it was known by City Hall and police that a “riot” would happen whether the Canucks won the game or not and that it was purposefully understaffed and the boondoggle of the entertainment zone near the CBC building promoted exactly what happened there; the Mayor and Chief of Police take no responsibility for understaffing the event and a week later, there are anti-rioting laws in place and a slew of new cameras are going up. It was designed to fail in terms of public perception of police/governmental response or preparedness. Let it happen, public outcry, then install your little tyranny one small step at a time. Soon there will be cameras on every corner like in London, where crime has only increased since the installation of more than a million cameras in the UK. We need to punish the criminals, not cage the law abiding public.

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