Friday, January 8, 2010

What is food to one man is twitter poison to others

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.

4 comments:

George Berger said...

Well, you predicted that I'd send you new links, so I did so almost. at once. But seriously, this is important. It shows how important social networking has become, and how much ingenuity opponents of some networkers are putting into countering it's effectiveness. I am on Twitter but have had no time to learn how to tweet, much less RT. It was essential in getting the news about Peter Watts' arrest out quickly. Within two hours of the main posting, to be exact. I was confined to using Safari to get the news onto sites, blogs, and fora, such as this one. Still, the speed amazed me. This time too, so thanks.

ilorien said...

George, once you sent me the link to the Lugar article it reminded me of some bit I'd heard on NPR about the Iranian government using mobile phones and social networking systems to track protesters. A quick google search brought up plenty of informative reading, as well as the bit about the State Department contest. Thanks for the spark.

George Berger said...

My pleasure Ilorien! I work that way a lot. When I hear about anything that interests me I go straight to Google. Indeed, that's one of the main reasons why I bought my iPhone. And now I am thinking about buying a net book. I plan to buy a Kindle, but want to wait until I see the new Apple competitor, which will soon be released.

Areophany said...

On the double edged sword of new electronic technologies, here's an article about police officers detaining civil liberties-minded bystanders who take video footage of police brutality in progress:

http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2010/01/12-5

The cops charge the videotapers with "illegal electronic surveillance."