Post written by: Mariel Gruszko, a WITNESS intern working with the “Cameras Everywhere” and “Tools and Tactics” initiatives.
On June 16, riots swept downtown Vancouver after the Vancouver Canucks lost the Final of the NHL’s Stanley Cup. The online response to the riots—a public campaign to name and shame rioters followed by a heated discussion regarding whether naming and shaming constitutes vigilantism or community policing—still rages.
This blog has extensively discussed the risks that human rights defenders face when they upload videos, agree to be filmed, or attend mass demonstrations. One aspect of this is when repressive governments use either automated or crowd-sourced identification technologies to persecute human rights activists. But what about when citizens themselves initiate and participate in crowd-sourced identification of others in social media, for example, criminals, or suspected criminals?
Crowd-Sourcing Law Enforcement: Two Stories
During the Green Movement protests of 2009, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) created a website on which officials posted photos of alleged protesters, many of which were taken from citizens’ videos and photos that had been uploaded to privately-owned sites. Citizens were asked to call or email if they could identify the people whose faces were shown in the photos.
While Iranian officials’ attempts to encourage citizen surveillance of protesters were condemned abroad, the Vancouver police department’s effort to crowd-source the collection of evidentiary videos and photos of last week’s riots were greeted with enthusiasm. The Vancouver PD requested via Twitter that citizens share their videos and photos of the hockey riots. The police department provided mechanisms by which people could submit their documentation of the riots privately and anonymously; the response rate was so high that it temporarily crashed the PD’s website.
However, the public response has overflowed this law enforcement channel. Vancouverites have started a Facebook page on which to share videos and photos of the riots publicly, and are using Tumblr to curate a Vancouver 2011 Riot Criminal List. The expansion of riot documentation and rioter identification beyond its use for law enforcement purposes suggests that media-facilitated citizen surveillance cannot be fully controlled or directed by governments.
If We Can Crowd-Source Law Enforcement, Should We?
Vancouverites’ eagerness to share riot videos with one another and make public lists of “criminals” highlights some serious questions around crowd-sourced surveillance. Citizens are making an active choice around the degree to which we respect individual rights (for example, to due process), even if the ease with which people can be identified in a networked world sometimes distracts us from this decision. In a series of articles and posts that beg us to weigh the long-term implications of crowd-sourced surveillance, Alexandra Samuel writes that many people have decided that
“crowdsourcing law enforcement is no more problematic than crowdsourcing the work of holding government and law enforcement accountable: that using YouTube or Facebook to document the actions of private citizens is no different from using those channels to document the actions of people who are paid and mandated to work on our behalf.”
Our global capacity to topple dictators and expose police abuse with the help of internet technologies has taught us that these technologies can be used to work to protect and uphold citizens’ rights against governments. But as Samuel points out, Little Brother is David when he faces state officials, but becomes Goliath when he targets private individuals. The public conduct of identification and accusation puts those whose faces appear in the wrong place at the wrong time at risk even if they have not committed criminal acts. The accused have no opportunity to defend themselves before their identities are made public. Where individuals with little capacity to defend themselves from extra-legal “justice” are concerned, the onus is on all of us to establish norms to govern our conduct online that protect them—and the rest of us—from undue harm.
Continuing the Conversation
Does the fact that we can use crowd-sourcing to identify private individuals mean that we should? What kinds of norms might we be able to establish to limit abuses of crowd-sourced surveillance?