Sunday, May 24, 2009

Facebook Foreign Agents

Batsheva Sobelman, who has covered stories that reference the use of online video in the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict, opines in the Babylon and Beyond blog at the Los Angeles Times that Facebook may pose a security threat to Israel by encouraging its citizens to aid and abet the enemy.

I had hoped that this argument had died a merciful death, but it appears that equating terrorism with social network sites continues to be popular with pundits and policy makers, just as it was in the Bush administration. It's an argument that I discuss in some detail in the Virtualpolitik book.

However, Solomon notes in "Loose lips on Facebook" that both sides in the conflict are using the popular social network site to recruit potential sympathizers.

This week, Israel's General Security Service took the unusual step of issuing a warning urging Israelis to be alert to terrorist activity on the Internet. Specifically, people were warned against unsolicited approaches on social networks by strangers offering meetings abroad or easy money and seeking information. Seemingly innocent contacts might be terrorist efforts to recruit or kidnap. (Presumably this works both ways: A few months ago a Syrian paper had warned of Mossad and CIA recruiting efforts on Facebook as well.)

Solomon also claims that the Israeli army is limiting soldiers' use of the site because Facebook members may unwittingly divulge sensitive information about porous checkpoints, lax monitoring, classified military procedures, and vulnerable concentrations of troop deployments. Concerned Israeli civilians now run a Facebook group that intervenes if Israeli Defense Forces soldiers make cyber-slips that seem to risk the secrecy that is essential for their military units.

Tartakovski opened his own Facebook group to form a neighborhood watch called "Protecting our IDF." It serves as a war room of sorts, a headquarters. Anyone identifying compromising information in the open is invited to contact the group; members approach the individual and point out the problem. Most people cooperate and remove carelessly revealed sensitive information. Those who don't are reported. In one case, Tartakovski wrote an uncooperative soldier with everything he knew about him. It was a lot. Stupefied that a perfect stranger could learn so much about him from his profile, the soldier got the picture.

Evgeny Morozov of the Open Society Institute warns that such monitoring behavior could easily turn into "facebook vigilantism" as practiced by the twenty-eight-year-old Eran Tartakovski, who monitors Israeli soldiers and polices their friending, messaging, and updating practices.

Now, I am not sure which element of the story I find more disturbing: the panopticum-like transparency of online activities of Israeli soldiers or the heavy reliance on crowdsourcing by Tartakovski et al (I bet he would never succeed in policing every uploaded photo if he was doing it by himself).

Are we witnessing the birth of Facebook vigilantism? After all, this could be the logical counterpart to the citizen journalism practiced by those naive Israelis who upload their photos to social networking sites...

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