Piers Fawkes: When The Bad Guys Use Our Data Against Us

What happens when the malicious organizations use social data? Get more good guys using social data against them.

I spoke recently to a journalist from Foreign Policy magazine about an article he was working on. He was doing research on a project about the use of data and had found my name in PSFK’s Future of Realtime Information report. In that report we spoke about the ability for organizations such as the UN and UNICEF to monitor signs of change through social media.

Towards the end of the interview, he arrived at a frequently posed question — what happens when organizations, governments and corporations use social data for malicious reasons against communities and populations? What happens when a local government uses travel stats to suppress the movement of a certain community, for example?

My response was that I’m optimistic about how things will turn out when it comes to the use of social data. Of course anyone and any organization can use available information for their own purposes but what I believe protects a larger community is that there’s simply more people in that population than in the aggressor’s ranks.

Social media has democratized the sharing and use of information – and this is happening at great speeds. Community safety is maintained when the number of people working in a government or corporation is less than the number of people in the community they operate within. For every gameplay that a corrupt government makes, a connected population should be able to make a faster, more informed counter-play.

I feel that this idea was supported in the Arab Spring. How can an oppressive government cope with controlling so many people with phones in their pockets? A larger population — when energized — can communicate, organize and act much more quickly than a smaller government or corporation.

Sure, guns will work for a while in Syria today — but surely not forever. And phones do an amazing amount of things that guns can’t.

But what happens when the bad guys are the larger community? In London last year the UK police struggle to contain a large number of connected but decentralized groups of young people. We all remember the mayhem that we saw in the news reports.

The riots finally passed but I wonder if the learnings about how to deal with such an uproar will be the right ones. I’m sure the British police are far more vigilant about listening to social network chatter now and they have a planned response to wide-spread rioting – but is a speedier police force the answer to population disobedience? Can it be?

My theory is that the group with a larger, connected population beats a smaller organization simply because of the number of nodes. The UK police won’t be able to handle the rioting if it happens this year in the way they hoped because the larger group will be reacting at a faster networked rate than a police force can work at. The mob will use technology to communicate, organize and act much faster than the British bobbies will anticipate.

At this point, the solution would be to turn to a larger network to control a smaller one. When the rioters return, the policy can’t (just) be to use a retrained police-force. It must be to turn to the entire UK population to share and use social data against the unruly mob. As the British people will outnumber the rioters, they should be able to neutralize the outbreak with the capture, use and sharing of social data. The rioters will of course be using similar data – but there will be considerably less than them.

If power is truly becoming decentralized through data then the public must be asked to use it (from time to time) to protect their community from these connected enemies within. Policy-makers should create tools that can be released to the wider community when a crisis happens, so that the whole population can be involved in the containment and hopefully neutralization of a crisis.

The evolution of our connectedness and the data that has provided radically changes the power balance. How does this change the way governments and people work with each other? I’m not too sure but there doesn’t seem to be a better time for everyone to respond to Kennedy’s age old request, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

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