Social Media, Privacy, Mass Surveillance, London Riots and the Arab Uprising

London had several days of rioting which were initial triggered by the shooting a gang member and then spread into rioting related to looting/shopping.

The first day after London started burning, I spoke to Claire Fox, radical leftwinger and resident of Wood Green. On Sunday morning, apparently, people had been not just looting H&M, but trying things on first. By Monday night, Debenhams in Clapham Junction was empty, and in a cheeky touch, the streets were thronging with people carrying Debenhams bags. Four hours before, I had still thought this was just a north London thing. Fox said the riots seemed nihilistic, they didn’t seem to be politically motivated, nor did they have any sense of community or social solidarity. This was inarguable. As one brave woman in Hackney put it: “We’re not all gathering together for a cause, we’re running down Foot Locker.”

How do you start a riot? Today social media, combined with a catalyst of some sort, helps. These young agitators were able quickly amass themselves in new locations because they were spreading the word about attacks through Facebook, Twitter and (especially) the encrypted messaging system offered by BlackBerrys. One message, obtained by The Guardian, gave specific coordinates saying, “Everyone in edmonton enfield wood green everywhere in north link up at enfield town station at 4 o clock sharp!”

The lack of effective response from the London police would suggest that the Echelon system and other systems for monitoring the communications did not cover the internet and social media. If there was effective monitoring that information was not communicated to the London police.

London has many security cameras. Those video cameras are being used as evidence to find and prosecute looters.

The cleanup of London is also organizing volunteers using social media.

The Arab uprising that toppled the Egyptian and other middle eastern governments also has social media as an organizing mechanism.

The United States is further along with police departments monitoring social media for criminal activity and to spot planned criminal activity.

There will be far more widespread realtime monitoring of Twitter and Facebook and other sites to enable preempting crime and also to anticipate mass activity.

In the 1980s mass protests in the Philippines were organized by phones, churches and other older social and telecommunication systems.

The 2001 People power 2 in the Philippines used mobile phones.

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