So the Bruins won the Super Bowl. Or something like that.
And in the aftermath, people rioted in Vancouver. And in those riots, pictures and videos were taken.
And some people took it upon themselves to identify the rioters.
And after the aftermath - with nearly 170 people treated in hospitals, volunteers cleaning up the city, people began to ask questions about surveillance and the role of social media.
In the comments of her post linked above, Alexandra Samuel extends her original thoughts to include the "slippery slope" argument:
I don't see how we can claim to be uncomfortable with mass surveillance -- to fear Big Brother -- but then make exceptions when it's convenient, or feels important. This is a slippery slope and we can't draw too many simple lines -- even a line based on exposing illegal behaviour (as opposed to legal but controversial). Remember that there are places where it's illegal to smoke dope, or criticize the government, or hold hands with someone who is the same gender as you. Do we accept social media surveillance in those contexts?
To start, it's worth pointing out that most slippery slope arguments aren't worth the air required to set them loose. A "slippery slope" argument assumes that we live in a world with moral absolutes, and that making a "wrong" choice plunges us into the abyss of uncertainty and ambiguity.
But with that said, to all those who argue that using social media to identify rioters to the state are engaging in community surveillance/crowdsourcing big brother/engaging in nefarious deeds to further the expansion of the omnipresent nanny state: you are late to the game. That ship has sailed. People are reporting on one another, and have been for years, well before the advent of the social web. Perversely enough, people using Facebook are complicit in building their own Panopticon. And, in using sites like Facebook - where people throw their contact information, their interests, the places they like to go, the people they like and dislike, things they buy, games they play (and how they play them), what they look like, what their friends look like, etc, etc - people leave a broad data trail. Even rough data shows a lot about individuals; more sophisticated datasets allow for more sophisticated predictions.
It would be interesting to look at what could be discerned from a person's datastream on Facebook, combined with the data accessible via the phones and laptops we use, and how close that woud come to supporting the data needed to make the Information Awareness Office a reality.
But to return to the argument of what constitutes an appropriate use for social media, and what level of privacy is reasonable to expect: we need to ground these conversations within the historical reality that people have been disagreeing, behaving badly, attempting to avoid responsibility - and then talking about it - for centuries (as an aside, Augustine would have had an AWESOME twitter feed). Social media just lets us get the word out faster.
And, if you are now concerned about privacy, and the relationship between surveillance, privacy, and the state, there is one thing you can do right now to make it better: stop using Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter, etc, as outreach and communication tools. To use social media is to participate in a continuous act of cooperative surveillance: sometimes we're watching ourselves, sometimes we're watching others, sometimes we're being watched, but the difference between sharing and observing is largely a matter of the side of the window you're on.
For the many self-proclaimed "social media consultants": stop advocating an expanded use of Facebook, Twitter, etc, to the detriment of an organization's primary web site. If you have engaged in such unseemly behavior in the past, it's never too late to admit your mistakes. Just stop repeating them. And if you have been working in social media for more than 15 minutes and are actually surprised by privacy implications, you can always go back to selling cars.
Seriously, though, if you are giving advice to an organization that does social justice work, be very careful of the relationships you encourage them to foster on external social sites. Given Facebook's unclear direction in China, the ease in which apps can access and store user data, the way bugs leak private data, and Facebook's own hamfisted "privacy" efforts (from Beacon to facial recognition and everything in between), encouraging social justice-oriented groups to work on Facebook could be putting people at unnecessary risk.
As we talk about privacy and surveillance, we need to remember that a key difference between a surveillance tool and a tool for individual or collective empowerment is who controls the data, and how that data is used.
Image Credit: "Patrice Bergeron" taken by slidingsideways, published under an Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives license.