The Dangers of Social Networking for Activists

There is no doubt that social networking sites have proved a major weapon for activists who wish to expose oppression of their governments. But this freedom comes at a price, a huge risk to those posting, filming or even appearing in such evidence.

Take this video for example illustrating the barbaric behavior of the Kazakhstan police (be warned it's very disturbing)

Although the benefits of exposing this brutal behaviour of the state police is obvious, many people do not consider the risks involved in both filming and posting up this sort of evidence. There is a widespread and somewhat naive belief that authoritarian governments and their security services take little notice of the risks placed by social networking sites like Youtube, Twitter and Facebook - nothing could be further from the truth.

The idea that individuals from places like Iran, Kazakhstan or Syria can operate freely online without restrictions or risks is simply not true. This form of Cyber Utopia simply doesn't exist and anyone who posts evidence such as the video above puts themselves at a huge risk. Tracking people from their digital activities is easily done with the right resources - and trying to remain anonymous online is much more difficult than most imagine.

The above video was posted by Saule540 now we don't know if she was aware of the risks they took but we do know that very soon after the Kazakhstan security services had identified and raided the apartment the video was taken from. Thankfully the occupants had fled - we wish them luck.

Hide Your Tracks Online

The reality is that all these sites are heavily monitored and it is extremely difficult to cover your tracks on them. Infiltration of an online group or obtaining the contact list of a known activist from a social networking site will give security forces thousands of suspects to pursue.

The actual images or videos also place the people depicted at great risk. Imagine you took a video at an event or protest to illustrate the violence of some police or security forces. It would of course bring such events to world notice but it also could provide information on all the protesters taking part.

There are many very advanced facial recognition technologies available to regimes who want to identify protesters. Also it is common for authorities to set up web sites with images copied from these videos and pictures in order to identify activists.

One application which has been developed in order to attempt to help mitigate this risk is called Obscuracam developed by a trio of organisations - WITNESS, The Guardian Project, and the International Bar Association. Currently available on Android it's a free application which allows users to censor their videos and photos before uploading.

As you can see it enables users to obscure the identities of subjects quickly and easily from their phone without the need for photo editing software which simply might not be available. It can also be used to obscure any other visual information which may be best concealed.

There are other features allowing the user to specify secure areas to upload the images and also to remove metadata from the image.

You can get ObscuraCam from the Android market or from the Guardian Project Link above. Hopefully it will make the brave activists who stand up to these repressive, violent regimes a little safer.

It's important to be aware though that almost every government (oppressive or not) has significant resources monitoring these social networking sites. Be careful what you post up online wherever you live.