Social media expert concerned Vancouver riot could set precedent for Internet surveillance

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      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, 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.




      Jun 17, 2011 at 5:33pm

      2 major holes.

      These people bragged they did it on facebook and twitter. They wanted to be identified. They were just stupid enough to think we would just say oh and not do anything about it.

      The second hole is they did what they did so that they would end up in a picture or video online.

      So if we want to use our police force that we created, control and pay for to hold these self identied people to account...awesome.

      But I can see where the writer and paper is coming from. Both their customers are made up of the rioters. So they are trying to cover for them.

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      Jun 17, 2011 at 6:40pm

      I'm not sure the paranoid slippery slope argument is warranted here. The key element here is that the public overwhelmingly wants to ID these people and make sure justice is served. Everyone is pissed off and disgusted.

      There is a reason no similar facebook groups popped up after the G20 protests to try to ID people. This is a special case.

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      Jun 17, 2011 at 7:14pm

      I somewhat disagree with the author. Point taken, BUT: these people thought they were anonymous, that there were no consequences from their actions. That is why they thought they could get away with it. Now you see on Georgia Straight some are coming forward and turning themselves in.

      I support using social media to create social accepted patterns of behavior, to enforce the unwritten social rules of what is acceptable.

      Here finally there are consequences, immediate and timely, to their actions.

      We, as a city, do not need to wait two years for a trial.

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      James D

      Jun 17, 2011 at 11:04pm

      Nonsense. Social media can legitimately be used to hold police to account for their abuses, but it should not also be used to hold individuals to account for themselves. There's reason to be concerned about a surveillance society where no one can go about their lives without facing public scrutiny--where we haven't any privacy left. But this is not the place to make that argument. If you have evidence of someone committing assault or arson, that's something that genuinely does need to be reported, whatever medium the evidence is. People voluntarily submitting videos of individuals committing crimes in public areas--not a great example for the slippery slope argument.

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      Dr Octagon

      Jun 18, 2011 at 2:10am

      >>BUT: these people thought they were anonymous, that there were no consequences from their actions.<<

      They were rioting in front of live TV cameras, filming themselves (and being filmed) with digital camera, and posting footage of their exploits on Facebook. Did they really think they were anonymous? lol What a bunch of morons.

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      Lee Vardo

      Jun 18, 2011 at 7:14am

      The problem is that the Internet often gets the wrong person. It's happened a few times that someone is identified, their personal info is posted online, people call and harass their family, friends, workplace. That's no good either.

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      Arthur Vandelay

      Jun 18, 2011 at 7:28am

      Alexandra, if your sister was murdered during the riots would you want limit police as to the tools they were allowed to use to give your family justice? I didn't think so.

      George Kamps

      Jun 18, 2011 at 8:52am

      This is no different than eyewitness accounts in principle. Instead of millions of imperfect cameras (eyes) connected to imperfect storage devices (brains), with no good way to transfer the data to others (words), we have cameraphones and the internet.

      Why SHOULDN'T we crowd source the job of keeping our streets safe? The brave souls who stood up to the rioters weren't police, and weren't being paid. It wasn't their job, but they took it upon themselves to help keep their streets safe, or at least they tried. Some of them were beaten badly. If, instead of putting themselves in harm's way directly, they take pictures of the offenders and post them on the internet, it might bring justice to those who destroyed our city, and make others considering it in the future to not make the attempt.

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      Alexandra Samuel

      Jun 18, 2011 at 9:26am

      It is great to see people jumping into the debate: it is crucial for us to think and talk together about the larger implications of using social media to target criminal activity. You can find more comments about this issue, from me and many others, on these blog posts: (at Harvard Business Review) and

      Happily we don't have to use public shaming via Facebook and Tumblr to ensure rioters face consequences for their acts. The VPD has clearly asked people to submit their photos via email and their videos privately via YouTube, and has had a tremendous response. People can assist in the law enforcement process without turning into an online mob.

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