August 25, 2011

Why Governments Are Terrified of Social Media

In Missouri, teachers and others are up in arms over a law that would ban most contacts between teachers and students through social media, not only via systems like Facebook, but even apparently mechanisms such as Google Docs.

In the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron has proposed censoring or cutting off BlackBerry and other social media systems based on the misguided and false assumption that this would prevent planning and communications by potential rioters or other "undesirable" persons.

And back here in the U.S., BART shut down parts of the cell phone network, in an attempt to block communications in advance of a legal protest that never took place, though we know full well from history that protests -- even of enormous scope -- do not require high technology to be organized and deployed.

Around the world, including here in the U.S., governments are demanding unencrypted access to supposedly "secure" communications systems.

The common thread is very clear. Governments are increasingly terrified of the communications abilities that Internet and other technologies have provided their citizenry and other residents.

While usually careful to express their concerns in the context of seemingly laudable motives like fighting crime or terrorism, in reality these governments have revealed the distrust and contempt with which they view their populations at large.

This is by no means a new phenomenon.

Throughout human history, governments and many leaders have cast a jaundiced eye on virtually every new technological development that enabled communications, particularly if that technology made it easier for direct person-to-person messages to be exchanged outside the view of government services and minders.

These government efforts to suppress and control communications have virtually all failed in the end, though a great deal of damage has been done to individuals and groups in the process.

At one time, even the ability to read and write was considered too dangerous a skill set for the commoners. The invention of the printing press threw government and churches alike into convulsions of apprehension.

And now "social media" is the new scapegoat, the whipping boy, the technological designated evil that short-sighted politicians of both major parties, and their various administrative minions and supporters, are demanding be monitored, leashed, and controlled.

In reality of course, it's not the technology that these persons wish to leash -- it's ordinary people. It's you and me and the vastness of other law-abiding persons who have become the targets of the 21st century law enforcement mantra: "Screw the Bill of Rights -- treat everybody like a suspect, all the time."

The broad implications of this "guilty until proven innocent" mindset are all around us now. They're at the heart of the newly revealed alliance between CIA and the New York City Police Department to monitor the activities of innocent citizens, using surveillance techniques that would have seemed comfortably familiar to the old East German Stasi secret police.

They're seen in the massive government-mandated Internet data retention demanded by "The Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act of 2011" -- now moving rapidly through Congress, and disingenuously titled to suggest it only applies to child abuse, when in reality its true reach would broadly encompass all manner of Internet access activities.

Governments seem to increasingly no longer feel that it's necessary or desirable to have "probable cause" or court orders before spying on individuals, tracking their movements via hidden GPS units, building dossiers, or even disrupting communications. Constitutional guarantees are more and more viewed by our leaders as quaint artifacts of the past, to be ignored today merely as annoying inconveniences.

The innocent are now being treated largely as potential "future criminals" -- and so subject to many of the same sorts of surveillance and other law enforcement techniques that in the past were generally limited to specific suspects of specific crimes.

To the extent that these activities for now appear to be mostly aimed at persons with skin colors or religions different from us, it becomes easier to "go with the flow" of this new law enforcement mentality, to not make waves, to be quiet, to be sheep.

But the same techniques used today against one group can be easily repurposed for others. Government ordered records of users' Internet activities will affect us all, and the infrastructures created to support these surveillance-related systems may be be extremely long-lived.

When governments no longer trust the people, when officials make the mental and physical leaps to targeting vast numbers of innocent persons in the manner of criminal suspects of yesteryear, we have embarked on a road that leads to a very dark place indeed.

Today, social media is the crosshairs. Governments certainly are enthusiastic about using social media for their own investigatory and enforcement purposes, but they appear to be desperately seeking ways to control and limit the ability of ordinary persons to communicate privately and securely on these systems, or to use them at all in some cases.

This is hypocrisy of the highest order. It is a serious risk to innocent individuals being targeted by its adherents today.

Unchallenged, tomorrow it will be a serious risk to us all.


Posted by Lauren at August 25, 2011 01:14 AM | Permalink
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