When Social Media becomes Anti-Social

It is enough to make George Orwell do a backflip in his grave.

Until recently, a BlackBerry was just another ordinary smartphone. Few people knew that messages sent on its network were also impervious to interception by the authorities, thanks to its user authentication requirements and employment of the Internet rather than the mobile phone network. Its BlackBerry Messenger service, in particular, is a closed network that allows instant messages to be exchanged securely between users.

This has made some governments leery of the device. Since May 1, the United Arab Emirates has blocked the use of BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES), the company’s most secure system that moves all data via servers located outside the country. Saudi Arabia has also pressured BlackBerry maker Research In Motion (RIM) to channel its communications via a server inside the country which the authorities can access with a court order.

A number of Asian governments, like Indonesia and India, have been partially successful in forcing RIM to either block “inappropriate” content or allow data interception. And United States national security officials announced last year that they would ask Congress to require all services that enable communications to be technically capable of complying if served with a wiretap.

Now, it would seem, the British government may follow suit. In the wake of the recent London riots, Prime Minister David Cameron told the House of Commons:

“Everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck by how they were organised via social media. Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill. And when people are using social media for violence, we need to stop them.”

Other social media networks, like Facebook and Twitter, have also come under scrutiny. Britain’s Home Secretary Theresa May is expected to hold meetings with the three companies in the next few weeks. Britain’s Data Protection Act allows companies to hand over an individual’s private information if it is in the interests of national security or if it allows the detection and possible prevention of crime. But the police will still need a warrant to ensure they comply.

While RIM issued a statement last year denying it has a master key that can unlock all encrypted data, the issue is still a matter of much speculation. The Canadian company has remained fairly tight-lipped about its inner workings, with its executives keeping a low profile and refusing to comment on the BlackBerry device’s role in recent uprisings, apart from blanket statements that it will cooperate with the authorities.

BlackBerry has, understandably, worn its much-vaunted security as a badge of pride against its competitors. But with peer-to-peer communication and the Internet cited as the main movers of civic disobedience, the Arab Spring as well as other ground-up uprisings, it is uncertain how long it can stand its ground. One thing is certain – there will be more tussles ahead between organisations which need to manage large-scale security issues and the individual’s right to privacy.

While no one likes the idea of Big Brother listening in on his phone calls and reading his e-mail, few would begrudge some intrusion if it makes it easier for the authorities to uncover a terror plot. But that is assuming all the authorities have benevolent intentions, which they may not.

Tottenham MP David Lammy’s call to temporarily close the BlackBerry network until the London streets are safe again is understandable. But China’s moves to curtail its microblog networks, called weibo, in the wake of last month’s train crash in Wenzhou are less so. Ten days after the crash, the most influential weibo, Sina, started deleting posts related to the accident, noted Shanghai-based consultancy RedTech Advisors. Weibo are often used to expose corruption and wrongdoing in government.

However, such curtailing attempts, in the long run, will probably prove futile as social media grows in influence and reach. Also, the legions of hackers who delight in undermining big corporations and governments are turning the battle to control information into a full-blown war.

Today, with higher stakes at play, that hoary cyberpunk slogan ‘Information wants to be free’ rings with even more foreboding, even as it offers the tantalising promise of a new world of transparency and openness.

Such openness is a double-edged sword. For every WikiLeaks entry that lays bare abuse of power, another exposes good people to risk and injury. For every “hacktivist” who tries to break the monopoly of information for the greater good, another wants to use data for destruction.

In his speech, Mr Cameron called for social media companies to take more responsibility for content posted on their networks. At the end of the day, after all, the long arm of the law cannot snake its way into all the nooks and crannies of cyberspace. But it is not just social media networks that need to heed the call.

As unempirical and sentimental as it may sound, in an amoral age of smartphones and other intelligent machines, it is also companies, countries and individuals that must rely on their own moral consciences to pave the way forward. Even though that may not be enough.

Ong Soh Chin of The Straits Times 19/08/11

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