In Canada there is no crime of misprision, that is the failure to report a crime of which you have witnessed. With certain exceptions, there is no affirmative duty to report a criminal to police. However, in the aftermath of crimes against an individual and crimes against property many (including me) have called for active efforts by the online community to identify and report criminals to police.
I’ve dubbed such a group a “tweetgang”, which I define as any group organized by twitter for real world action. As such, a “tweetgang” could also be used to describe a group organized to clean up a park. In the case of the Vancouver riots however, it is invoked as an online group encouraged to assist police in the identification of criminals responsible for the destruction caused by the riots.
Alexandra Samuel in the Harvard Business Review was quite eloquent in her warning against what she called citizen surveillance: “After a Loss in Vancouver, Troubling Signals of Citizen Surveillance“
“But it’s one thing to take pictures as part of the process of telling your story, or as part of your (paid or unpaid) work as a citizen journalist. It’s another thing entirely to take and post pictures and videos with the explicit intention of identifying illegal (or potentially illegal) activity. At that moment you are no longer engaging in citizen journalism; you’re engaging in citizen surveillance.”
I don’t think the type of reporting that is going on can be considered “citizen surveillance” for the following reasons:
Surveillance implies stealth, infiltration, coercion or the passive-aggressive force of the state channeled through informants, applied against a person or group acting in a private, rights-protected, subversive, or criminal manner.
- If you are present at a crime, you are not conducting surveillance, you are a witness.
- There was no infiltration of the criminal element, witnesses happened to be in the area, or arrived during the crime, drawn by curiosity.
- There was no coercion by the witnesses of the criminals involved. The witnesses were bystanders.
- There was no application of the state monopoly on violence via these witnesses. The criminals were clearly not intimidated.
- To seek out and obtain evidence of a crime and forward it to police is not operating as an informant unless there is some personal gain.
A witness reporting a crime or a crowd pointing out a criminal is not surveillance and not informing – it is citizenship.
The Canadian Oath of Citizenship states in part:
… that I will faithfully
observe the laws of Canada
and fulfil my duties as a Canadian citizen.
According to the Canadian government, those duties include:
- understanding and obeying Canadian laws
- helping others in the community
- eliminating discrimination and injustice
I’d say being able to identify when a crime is being committed is “understanding Canadian laws”, that identifying the criminals would directly “help others in the community” who suffered at the hands of those criminals, and reporting this information to the police might go pretty far in “eliminating discrimination and injustice”.
Samuel then goes on to list some specific actions she would hate to see:
“I am much less comfortable when I think about other ways that crowdsourced surveillance has been or might be put to use: By pro-life demonstrators posting photos of women going into clinics that provide abortions. By informants in authoritarian states tracking posts and tweets critical of the government. By employers that scan Facebook to see which of their employees have been tagged in photos on Pride Day or 4/20.“
All these are good examples of potentially dubious uses of social media, but Samuel overlooks some things and attempts to create an Avalon of purity for social media that simply does not, never did, and cannot exist.
Pro-life demonstrators already post photos of women going into clinics. While this is dubious, it is not the posting of the photo that is problematic, but the inciting of violence towards those pictured which is unacceptable.
It is a false analogy to compare informants of a repressive government trolling the social media sphere or online communications on behalf of the state and the witnessing of a public crime against persons or property.
And as for employers scanning Facebook looking for Pride Day or 4/20 celebrants; Samuel is deluded if she thinks this does not currently occur. This is a good analogy to the abortion clinic, except that the celebrants most likely posted their information to share online. And so long as the employer takes no action contrary to labor law, there is nothing illegal in the act of seeing what your employees are up to in their free time.
Bosses get bored on Facebook late at night too, to suggest that their employees online profiles are off-limits seems to me to be overly pro-active in the area of privacy protection.
One could also argue that despite the poor history of providing security to their customers, Facebook and other online sites do provide opportunities for a person to shield a good deal of their public actions from unwanted review. I’d suggest, finally, if you don’t want your boss to see your picture at Pride Day or 4/20, take care not to post any photos of yourself, and take reasonable precautions against others doing so.
Samuel’s extensive writing may in fact provide you with ample direction in these areas.
Moreover, Samuel appears to desire a fencing off of social media for the uses already ascribed to all other forms of media, namely the dissemination of information and opinion accessible to both public (government) and private (individual) use. Would she suggest that in the 1920′s the new technology of radio not be monitored by the police, or that they not read websites and blogs for indications of criminal activity? Why not then Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube?
I see great comparison between the use of social media and previous means of communication within and between communities in warning of, sharing information about, and identifying criminals at work in the area. Is it OK for me to call my friends, but not OK to use twitter to tell them to help catch a vandal? Is it OK for me to walk door to door to ask for assistance in finding the thieves breaking into houses, but not OK to post such a request on Facebook?
Samuel goes on to imply that users of social media hold a special place as citizens, a community apart it seems:
Social media users need to decide whether surveillance is going to be part of our collective mission and culture online. We need to distinguish between the opportunity (and perhaps even responsibility) that comes with widespread ownership of camera phones, and the decision to post what we snap or film…
But passing along the odd photo isn’t the same as turning yourself into a security camera. And it’s certainly not the same as tweeting, Facebooking or blogging your way to a comprehensive portfolio of public crimes and misdemeanours.
So does she think that as users of social media that we form a collective, more so than say, readers of the local paper, or users of the telephone? And while certainly there is an ethical, legal and moral decision that must be made to distinguish between what is possible to capture and what is possible to share publicly or with authorities, I don’t think that it is the same decision as that which leads one to serve as an agent of the state.
And I wonder, since Samuel seems uncomfortable with the use of social media to create a “comprehensive portfolio of public crimes and misdemeanours” how she feels about those same tools being put to use to uncover crimes of far greater significance, or those committed by the state itself. Is she equally uncomfortable with Kris Krug’s efforts to document the crimes and misdemeanors related to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, or my efforts to document the crime of human trafficking on my own (separate) site?
Samuel closes with a statement I mostly agree with:
What social media is for — or what it can be for, if we use it to its fullest potential — is to create community. And there is nothing that will erode community faster, both online and off, than creating a society of mutual surveillance.
I might argue that a community will be eroded faster by discrimination and injustice, but what I think Samuelson unfairly equates are the actions of citizens to maintain their community using the newest means of communication, and the cold hand of a state security apparatus to which these new technologies have shown in recent history to be remarkably resistant.
Popular Local Blogger Rebecca Bollwitt (Miss604) repeated the call from authorities to assist in the identification of rioters:
How To Help
I encourage you to embrace this call to citizenship in action and maintain your community both online and in real life by using the technology you have available to you to identify and report the criminals responsible for the June 15th riots in Vancouver.
UPDATE: A fantastic article by Christopher on Technology, Thoughts, and Trinkets “Vancouver’s Human Flesh Search Engine” adds great nuance to this conversation and it worth a read. I disagree, but have more things to think about based on his excellent points.