Right to protest and policing in social networks

by Digital Rights LAC on June 30, 2014


Today, activists and police from around the region are faced with a new battleground: the social networks. While for some it is the most effective way of being organized, for others it is fertile ground for surveillance.

By Francisco Vera Paz Peña, Digital Rights NGO.

At the time of writing, somewhere in a city of Brazil, one the most highly anticipated matches of the FIFA World Cup 2014 is being played. While fans indulge in frenzied celebrations, it is almost certain that the Brazilian police are watching over certain social network users from that country. Why? To “prevent” any likely disturbances throughout the event that could possibly arise from any of the protests that have been announced.

Why did the police decide to monitor social networks? Mainly because, whether we like it or not, they are not only the most popular platforms on the internet, but they are often the only means that the public have for communicating with one another. Thus, over time, they have become platforms for promoting various forms of human rights, such as petitions, gatherings, associations and freedom of expression.

With the student protests of 2011 (which are still occuring today), the use of social networks in the organizing of the students in Chile was paradigmatic for the exercise of human rights on the net. So much so, that you cannot analyze these mobilizations without taking into accounts these platforms, along with the positive and negative consequences for the student movement.

It was only a matter of time before the police surveillance mechanisms would reach the use of social networks, especially in countries like our own, where “democracies” that suffer the many ills of post authoritarianism are still abound. Surveillance practices that do not conform to law, should not be permitted, for being arbitrary actions that seek to punish the exercise of fundamental rights and intimidate different activists.

The monitoring social media has several modalities. The first and simplest is to identify the event, organizers or Facebook groups, which. given the social nature of this social network and its policies that aim towards the use of real names, make matters easy for the work of the police and intelligence, without requiring any special skills.

Another method is to demand companies like Facebook or Twitter, through court or government orders (the latter is considered dubiously legal), to hand over the private information of its users, allowing police and intelligence services to identify people who exercise their right to anonymity through pseudonyms or false names.

But there is also a third, and more worrying, category which involves the use of specific technologies that can be offered by the social networks themselves, to facilitate the identification of suspects. This is the case, for example, with the use of facial recognition systems, although today it is not possible to extend their use within law enforcement and security agencies. A case in Chile, however, has caught our attention as it raises the alarm on their potential uses.

During one particular protest, which occured only a few weeks ago, a Chilean policeman was brutally beaten and attacked by a group of hooded rioters, an incident which was unanimously condemned by all sectors. A witness managed to record some footage of the incident, and based on those images, the Chilean prosecution claims to have carried out “facial recognition which has led to pictures of someone that it resembles”, resulting in the arrest of a student who was allegedly involved in the events.

The above phrase evokes the use of social networks and technologies. Fortunately, for now, Facebook does not allow random face searches for any given photograph, unless it is on your list of friends or friends of your friends, and is far from being an accurate process, which means that the procedure itself had very little technology behind it.

What probably happened in the case described was that the so called “facial recognition” only consisted of comparing video images with Facebook pictures by eye. But, if in Chile alone there are millions of users of this social network, where did the police start their search? Other background information, additionally suggests that the suspect had had not even attended the march, so now all the research procedure is being questioned.

In this new stage of social media monitoring and prosecution of social protests, there are different ways to address the problem. It’s easy to take a technologically determinist approach and trust that the only solution is to convince and train the participants to use safe tools for communication (TOR, encrypted emails, etc.). However, adopting these tools, which can actually help a lot of activists, does not necessarily solve the underlying problem.

The problem with this approach is that it ignores that both security and privacy are not defined by the use of a tool, but by cultural patterns. Saying that “Facebook is evil” to other members of social movements, who through this platform have succeeded in exercising many of their rights, is not the best way of trying to understand the complexities behind the use of technology, and ignores the networking potential of a platform that consists of so many users. The ways of approaching the privacy and security of our data depends on variables such as age, gender, social class, and so on. One way of working with activists at risk, due to the monitoring of social networks, could start with understanding and assuming these conditions.

Bearing all of this in mind, we must not forget the main perspective: the political dimension. Prosecution agencies in countries like Chile and others in the region, do not adequately respect our fundamental rights. They often operate in a sloppy or abusive manner, without a warrant authorizing them to do what they do. Such abuses, within the digital environment, pose a threat to millions of people who can be prosecuted for numerous reasons that have little to do with the prosecution of a crime, but more so to undermine, prevent or restrict the exercise of several fundamental rights.

In this scenario, it is essential to have policies that limit the excessive and disproportionate collection of data by social networks and, at the same time, prevent the police and security forces from having free and indiscrimante access to this information. This is the only way that we can effectively protect the fundamental rights of users from these services, allowing them to exercise their rights through the platforms which they consider most effective to achieve the social changes that many people crave.

Francisco Vera Paz Peña is a lawyer and journalist at Digital Rights NGO.
E-mail: francisco@derechosdigitales.org and paz@derechosdigitales.org