The Metropolitan Police has bought technology to allow tracking of data from mobile phones within a specified area, and now the blocking social media during civil unrest is surprisingly popular. The polled group isn’t huge so one does hope that it’s not too representative of the population as a whole, but seriously, really?
‘A poll of 973 adults carried out for the online security firm Unisys found 70% of adults supported the shutdown of Twitter, Facebook and BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), while only 27% disagreed. Three-quarters agreed that governments should have open access to data on social network users in order to prevent co-ordinated crime.’
This is an astonishing and wholly unwelcome return to the climate of fear and paranoia encouraged by the previous Labour government in the wake of 9/11 and 7/7. Remember that tired old adage, ‘If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear’, mainly uttered by people who thought handing up our civil liberties on plate was going to offer them some kind of protection against all kinds of evil. But not only did 70% of people in the Unisys survey support a social media shutdown, 75% believed that government should have open access to data on users in the name of crime prevention.
The problem with this kind of belief is that people apply it only to what they define as criminal acts, in this case the riots in London over the summer, without seeming to understand that ‘civil unrest’ could also be used to define other things. Like protests. In fact, very much like protests. Social media has become a vital part of legitimate protests, not just in terms of logistics, but expressing opinions, sharing information, broadcasting events as they happen and helping people get home. Imagine a country where social media is automatically shut down ahead of protests such as today’s tuition fees demonstration, where mobile phones in the protest area are scanned and users’ private data is picked over by police as they decide whether or not a crime may be committed. Countries such as China, North Korea and Iran are heavily criticised by the UK for doing exactly this (and more) and it’s called oppression and censorship yet somehow when we do it, it’s repackaged as ‘crime prevention’.
Censorship of the internet – because that what it is, let’s not pretend otherwise – is nothing short of insanely draconian. In 2009, David Cameron used his Conservative Party Conference speech to state that he would sweep away the ‘whole rotten edifice of Labour’s surveillance state’. After the riots, he told parliament that the government were considering plans to stop the use of social media for criminal activity. Quite how he expected to achieve this wasn’t explained. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, eh Dave?
The worst thing about all this is that so many people seem to have lost the ability to think for themselves, they blindly believe that if they give up their civil liberties and their privacy for some vague promise of reduced crime statistics, that a) it’s a worthwhile exchange, b) it will only apply to other people and c) that if they want the government to change it back again at a later date then they will. Get a grip, people. Knee-jerk reactions do not good policy make.