Today the U.S. State department, as part of its increasing interest in social networking, will launch a contest to "tweet what you think democracy is in 140 characters or less." The winner is the person whose 140 (or less)-character tweet is re-tweeted the greatest number of times in the next two weeks receives an HD digital video camera.
In his recent article in Foreign Policy about the State Department's interest social networking, Indiana Senator Richard Lugar writes:
"The adroit use of social networking sites, such as Twitter, Facebook, and others, coupled with text messages and increasingly widespread mobile-phone technology, can help lend support to existing grassroots movements for freedom and civil rights, connect people to information, and help those in closed societies communicate with the outside world. It also promises to give a strong economic boost to small entrepreneurs and the rural poor. The World Bank estimates that for every 10 percent increase in the number of mobile-phone users in a developing country, there is nearly a 1 percent increase in its economic output."
This emphasizes the positive applications of social networking for international (and domestic) development. Just over a week ago, however, Will Heaven of the Telegraph painted a rather darker picture:
"In Iran, for instance, the government controls the internet with a nationalised communications company. Using a state-of-the-art method called "Deep Packet Inspection", data packages sent between protesters are now automatically broken down, checked for keywords, and reconstructed within milliseconds. Every Tweet and Facebook message, in other words, is firmly on the regime's radar."
...as did Scott Peterson in his article in the Christian Science Monitor:
"Iran already has powerful Internet eavesdropping and hacking capabilities, thanks to systems sold to by Nokia and Siemens. 'We didn’t know they could do this much,' a network engineer in Tehran told the Wall Street Journal last June. 'Now we know they have powerful things that allow them to do very complex tracking on the network.'
Iran was 'drilling into what the population is trying to say,' a California Internet security specialist was quoted as saying in the Journal. 'This looks like a step beyond what any other country is doing, including China.'"
I wonder why Senator Lugar didn't mention this... or why there isn't any sort of disclaimer on the State Department's contest announcement site.
I use Facebook frequently and Twitter occasionally. I use my cell phone pretty much non-stop, especially for texting and email. Generally I'm a big fan of social networking systems and a proponent of the exploding accessibility to and use of mobile technology worldwide. I'm especially intrigued by some of the disease surveillance and other public health efforts. But I don't fool myself for one minute into believing that just because such systems have been used for good, they aren't also being exploited for more sinister purposes, both abroad and at home.