pulling the plug on 21st century mobs?

Are Tweets, BBMs, or Facebook updates weapons of mass mayhem?

OK… I have no problem with police departments (such as those in New York City and London) setting up units to look  at (public) social media sites for signs of impending lawbreaking, whether it be morons rioting, morons flash-robbing, or morons planning other mayhem.  More power to them… I think that if you tweet or Facebook your nefarious plans for the world to see, you should have an additional count of felony stupidity added to your charge sheet.  I also have no problem with the authorities turning off communications facilities when there is a credible and imminent threat to life and limb, such as the possibility of a cell phone triggered improvised explosive device.  But, when I first read about the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police’s move this past Thursday evening rush hour when they disabled cellphone communications on the underground portions of the BART system, I felt very uncomfortable.  This sounds like something that repressive regimes like Egypt, Syria, or Libya would do to their people, not something which could happen in the US.  Then I read BART’s statement about the cellular interruption and got to thinking:

Organizers planning to disrupt BART service on August 11, 2011 stated they would use mobile devices to coordinate their disruptive activities and communicate about the location and number of BART Police. A civil disturbance during commute times at busy downtown San Francisco stations could lead to platform overcrowding and unsafe conditions for BART customers, employees and demonstrators. BART temporarily interrupted service at select BART stations as one of many tactics to ensure the safety of everyone on the platform.

You can find the full statement here.

First of all, BART probably broke the law by doing this.  It is against federal law to interfere with licensed wireless communications.  Even prisons (which, in my opinion should be able to operate cellphone jammers) have been prevented from doing so in the past.  (Yes, I know that BART did not jam the signals, they simply shut down existing cell sites – the result was the same, though).

Now, depending on what kind of information BART had, there may have been a (morally) acceptable reason for taking action.  For example, if the information was very clear in stating that the types and methods of protests were aimed at inducing overcrowding on platforms (a situation dangerous to life and limb) and there was reason to believe that the threat was credible and imminent, I might have been tempted to make the same decision.  But there are some other factors to consider (apart from the legal issue).

First and foremost, what about people already on the BART system who might need access to 9-1-1?  Well, the NYC subway system has no cell service on its underground portion (thankfully) and manages to have a mechanism (call boxes) for getting help in an emergency.  I assume BART is similarly equipped, so the cell service failure did not totally isolate riders from help.  Yes, had someone been on the phone with 9-1-1, their call would have been interrupted, but they could then resort to the call box – not ideal, but workable.

Second… if BART management felt the threat to be credible and that mobile devices were an integral part of the threat, they really only had two choices – shut down cellular service, or shut down stations where they felt the threat was greatest.  The latter option is not a perfect solution (the protestors would just regroup via Twitter) and would inconvenience thousands of innocent commuters.

We are just not yet equipped to make decisions like this and we need to be.

My takeaways from this:

Mobile devices and social media pose new challenges to law enforcement and new potential dangers to the public (as last week’s riots in London seem to have demonstrated).  Getting a mob together and coordinating their actions is a lot easier than it used to be and law enforcement needs tools to deal with this problem in a way which preserves public order but which also respects the rights of the people to peacefully assemble and protest.  This is not an issue to be left to local police departments – we need to do this at the federal level as it is a constitutional issue.

If we decide to allow law enforcement to disrupt communications to preserve public order, we need to have strict standards as to what constitutes a serious and imminent threat to public order and there must be a process to publicly review any such decision after the fact – and consequences for those who make the wrong decision.  The body that makes the (very quick) decision to pull the plug needs to have both law enforcement and civilian members (maybe a constitutional lawyer?).

Other risks need to be considered – for example, using a bunch of social media bots, a miscreant could create a denial of service attack on communications by creating a “virtual” flash mob that exists only in cyberspace, but looks big and scary.  In addition to inconveniencing the public, such an attack could be used as an aid to committing other types of crime.  If these fake flash mobs were to become a regular event, public support for anti flash mob measures could dwindle, leaving us where we are today.

Hopefully our elected officials will take some time out from serving their special interest masters, playing party politics, destroying the economy, and all of the important work that they love so much to take a look at an important issue in a rational way.  Oh, wait…


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