April 12, 2013 3:49 pm
Updated: April 12, 2013 6:26 pm

The dangers of policing with social media

The “hacktivist” group Anonymous issued an ultimatum to police in Nova Scotia Thursday demanding police reopen the Rehtaeh Parsons case or they will release names of the four boys they believe to have committed the crime. They have since recanted their threat at the request the Parsons family.

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The “hacktivist” group Anonymous issued an ultimatum to police in Nova Scotia Thursday demanding police reopen the Rehtaeh Parsons case or they will release names of the four boys they believe to have committed the crime. They have since recanted their threat at the request the Parsons family.

But, with groups like Anonymous making use of social media to “out” people, it raises questions over what effect social media has on policing.

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Alexandra Samuel, vice president of Social Media for Vision Critical is torn. While she vehemently disagrees with the practice of identifying and shaming potential perpetrators using social media, she does believe that hacktivism does have its place.

“While I think that there is hacktivism that is vigilante-like, I think there’s also hacktivism that’s better understood as activism and civil disobedience and there has to be room in the world for that because it can be very constructive,” Samuels said.

Samuels thinks that in the case of Rehtaeh Parsons, Anonymous shouldn’t be going after the boys who allegedly committed the crime, but after the root cause.

Read more: Will Anonymous’ involvement in Rehtaeh Parsons case do more harm than good?

“It’s clearly a snapshot of the limitations and failings of our criminal justice system if this poor girl didn’t have a way of prosecuting her attackers,” Samuels said. “Where hacktivists have been very effective is when they use their skills to engage in the policy issues around the miscarriage of justice.”

Read more: Halifax police reopen Rehtaeh Parsons case

Lorne Honickman, a Toronto lawyer, also cautions that “outing” an individual can also be a crime.

“Publishing on social media, or on any platform on the internet, is no different in law, then publishing in the mainstream media,” Honickman said. “You will be held responsible for what you publish.”

In this case the Youth Criminal Justice Act prevents the publishing of the name of an alleged young offender. But, even if this wasn’t the case, the consequences for outing an innocent person are just as tough.

“That social media publisher could not only be sued for defamation because of the damaged reputation, but could also be held legally accountable for any other potential damage and ramifications the false allegations caused,” Honickman said.

While Honickman believes social media can be used responsibly to assist policing, Avner Levin, director of the Privacy and Cyber Crime Institute, disagrees. He worries that social media can actually get in the way of a police investigation.

“All kinds of information is released and people don’t pause and think whether it’s going to harm the investigation,” Levin said. “Law enforcement always likes to withhold a bit of information in order to verify it. It’s very hard to do that once it’s on social media.”

But hacktivists aren’t the only ones that have taken to social media. Police forces worldwide are realizing that it’s a tool that they can use too. York Regional Police uses social media for anything from updating the public on a homicide investigation to responding to requests for assistance from the public. They also get tips.

“As part of our ‘Vaulter’ campaign right now we’ve received tips via social media,” said Constable Blair McQuillan, media relations officer for the York Regional Police. “Those have been passed on to our Hold-Up Unit and they’re following up on those tips.”

The difficulty with police using social media, according to Levin, is that it’s difficult to verify every tip.

“More often than not it’s not going to be helpful,” Levin said. “Both in terms of effectively deploying their resources and also effectively following up on what they feel are true leads.”

Honickman has this advice for people who are considering posting information on social media.

“The best rule of thumb for everyone who publishes information on social media or any other platform on the internet: don’t publish anything that the mainstream media would never publish,” Honickman said.

© Shaw Media, 2013

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