By Thomas Lord
Recently, the local blog Berkeleyside wondered aloud whether or not Berkeley Police should be using Facebook to communicate with the public. They cited examples of other cities that have started using Facebook and Twitter, apparently to good effect.
I’m not so enthusiastic about the idea.
It would be bad policy for Berkeley to use the social networks we’ve got if the end result was a de facto requirement: citizens who want to be well informed, say, by the police department – must sign up for Facebook and/or Twitter. Yet if the Berkeley Police’s main wide-reaching tool for publishing vital information becomes Facebook or Twitter, residents who want to be well informed will have no choice but to sign up. It will be a de facto requirement.
Whatever useful information the City might choose to provide via those social networks, it ought to take care to provide the same information in other, better ways. (I suggest email, text messages, and City web pages, for starters.)
One problem with the social networks is privacy and another is robustness.
To use something like Facebook raises enormous privacy concerns that most people don’t fully understand. Using Facebook makes it easier for advertisers and other firms to track what web sites you visit and when. It allows various firms to “map out” your social relations. Employers increasingly consult databases derived from social networks. Data taken from Facebook is implicated in something like 20% of all divorce filings. Facebook allows law enforcement, often with no warrant required, to examine all of your Facebook materials including records of when you use the site and from where. If they are interested in you, your friends might be searched as well. If they are interested in a friend of yours, you might be searched. In countries where the government behaves oppressively, social networks can and have been used to identify whom to crack down upon. (Facebook is one of the worst examples though all of the social networking firms have their problems.)
At all of these services, surveillance by unauthorized employees is also a very real possibility and in some cases has been documented to occur. This creates back-channels wherein neighbors may spy upon neighbors, or criminals upon snitches.
Berkeley’s own Public Policy Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law (Samuelson Clinic), the Samuelson Law Firm and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have been investigating the privacy issues for years. For more information, here is a good place to start:
A concentration primarily on using these large social networking firms to communicate City business would be poor policy because their continued operation is not assured. At any time, the firms may choose to alter the functioning of their services in ways that negate prior investments made by “clients”. Twitter is particularly notorious for doing this, lately. These services are not purpose built for communications between government and citizens and when their business models require it, they will change as the see fit.
Joining a trend in which many urban police departments concentrate on, say, Facebook is especially foolish. A determined attacker with cause to disrupt many police communications at once has but one target (Facebook) to concentrate upon rather than many targets. That makes the attacker’s job less expensive.
It’s a nice thought, Berkeleyside, but please be careful what you wish for. Trendy though it may be, the popular social networking sites are not the best tool for this job.
The robustness and privacy problems do not imply that the City must not ever make good use of social networking for communication with the public. Those concerns do mean, though, that any such communication must be secondary: a merely convenient afterthought to simpler, more robust communication solution that better respects privacy.
I should explain that I am Tom Lord and make a disclaimer. I’ve been a computer programmer for about 25 years and a user of the Internet for almost all of those years. This article is critical of the privacy practices of certain “social networking” companies, especially Facebook. You should know, therefore, that some of my current technical work is in support of something called the “Freedombox Project”.
The Freedombox project was started in response to the important role that social networking as played in a wide variety of recent historic events. The project is driven by observing the ways in which government and today’s social networking firms interact, often to the harm of ordinary people. The project is also driven by observing the way these firms conspire with other firms to systematically diminish the personal privacy of their users.
The Freedombox project is assembling technology – most of which already exists but in scattered form – to give users an alternative, more private, more robust environment for things like social networking. It is primarily a volunteer project supported by hundreds of engineers from around the world.
Recently a non-profit organization was created to help organize and lead the project. For these reasons my criticisms of Facebook and Twitter could be criticized as self-serving. I don’t think they are. I think I would write these criticisms even if the Freedombox project did not exist. However, that is my disclaimer. I do not represent or speak for the Freedombox Foundation, but if you would like to learn more about the Freedombox project, here is a link: http://freedomboxfoundation.org/