A local expert on social media is concerned that the use of sites like Facebook to track down criminals involved in the Vancouver riots could set a precedent for Internet surveillance.
Alexandra Samuel, the director of the Social and Interactive Media Centre at Emily Carr University of Art and Design, said that while she’d like to see “every last one of these folks prosecuted”, she’s concerned about the public way in which riot participants are being identified.
Facebook and Tumblr pages have sprung up encouraging users to upload photos of riot instigators and identify them.
“I think we need to differentiate between using social media to hold law enforcement and to hold abuses accountable, and using social media as an extension of the state’s role in law enforcement,” Samuel told the Straight by phone.
She noted that the Vancouver police have been “exemplary” in encouraging the public to send in photos and videos privately.
The department is encouraging members of the public to e-mail their photos to firstname.lastname@example.org, and has released instructions on how to privately upload youtube videos. The police have received 1,800 tips and expect to receive up to hundreds of thousands of images over the coming weeks.
However, Samuel expressed concern with the potential for this case to set an example for social media as a mode of surveillance in other jurisdictions.
“As much as it feels like the Internet is this huge, dominant part of our lives, the reality is we’re just in the early stages, and we’re the founding generation of the Internet, and how we decide to use it is how it’s going to evolve,” she noted.
“I do not want people embracing the Internet as a way of crowd sourcing the job of policing the public good,” she added.
Const. Jana McGuinness of the Vancouver Police Department told reporters at a press conference today (June 17) that police are “watching Facebook” as part of their investigation into the riot.
She noted there’s a long process involved between receiving information and images from the public and pressing charges.
“It’s a long way between receiving an image and laying a charge - there’s a big process that has to take place,” she said. “Every one of those has to be an independent investigation.”
Samuel said that while some view this use of the Internet as an isolated scenario, she argued it could be a turning point.
“I think folks are seeing this as a one-off because it’s like, it’s a one-off in the context of how often are we going to have riots in Vancouver, well apparently like once every 17 years, but you know it’s not a one-off in the evolution of the Internet, it’s a foundational moment,” she said.
She also predicted it’s not likely to be the last time social media is used in this manner.
“It’s not hard to see the routinizing online of this kind of mutual surveillance,” she said.
“Once the police, once the government taps into the power of crowd sourcing surveillance, to think that they’re not going to use it again is just naive.”
Facebook was also used to gather volunteers to clean up following the riot. By Thursday morning, thousands of people had said they would attend the downtown cleanup.