The End of Social Media


Events in both London and San Fransisco will encourage police and security forces to push for the authority to jam or close down social media at the first hint of trouble. Officials, both public and private, feel confident that governments and businessmen, growing increasingly fearful of possible discontent on their streets and in their workplaces, will not stand in their way.

Mark Duggan was shot dead by police in London during an attempted arrest on August 4th. A peaceful protest turned violent and led to rioting first in London and then in other cities throughout the United Kingdom. The rioters used social media to spread and coordinate their activity. On July 3rd, Charles Hill was shot dead by Bay Area Rapid Transit District Police (BART) in San Francisco while resisting arrest, and on July 12 protesters at the station clashed with police. However, a wider protest planned for August 11th fizzled out. The reason? BART officials, aware of plans to use social media to organize the demonstrations, pulled the plug on the wireless system in their facilities.

BART's action provoked immediate, widespread, and ongoing condemnation. The hackers group Anonymous hacked one of BART’s websites and is planning more attacks. Negative comparisons with the actions of Middle Eastern dictatorships are all over the internet, as are warnings of the danger of cutting off emergency communications. The Federal Communications Commission is investigating the incident, but the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) withdrew its threat to sue BART for violating free speech after discussions with BART management. BART officials are confident that their actions were both legal and justified. The assertive record of the ACLU suggests that BART management made a compelling case.

The outcome in the U.S. will be to clear the path to take similar action in the future, in the interests of public safety or crime prevention. The crude action by BART management in shutting off all services may not be sanctioned but a more focused approach that targets specific services will be allowed, even encouraged.

The primary reason is the heightened security mindset following September 2001 coupled with the public's acceptance of curtailed freedoms and increased surveillance. The wireless and internet industries’ penchant for folding in the face of similar government requests is also a factor.

The technology to shut down social media is available and currently being used. Jamming devices block wireless transmissions at locations where "high-value" individuals are present or passing through. Anyone living in Washington, D.C., can thank these for at least a few dropped calls. President Barack Obama’s $1 million campaign bus is sure to be fully loaded too.

Authorities in the U.K. will reach the same conclusion. This was one of the first issues mentioned by Britain Prime Minister David Cameron when he addressed Parliament after the London riots. When these measures are introduced, other states will be anxious to emulate.

It will not be long before it is a routine tactic by most security forces to block communications as a default reaction, just like breaking out crush barriers, tear gas, and riot gear, when any demonstration or protest is planned or erupts spontaneously.

And we can also look forward to the proliferation of jamming devices in the private sector, with or without official sanction, as security firms beef up security for their clients here and abroad. And if criminals and terrorists have not already figured out uses for themselves, it won’t take them much longer.

Photo Credit: Tony O'Doherty