Social Networking And Security

By Jurgen Opfer.

It is fair to say that since the origin of governments, there have been groups of people who have rebelled against those governments in one way or another. Sometimes anti-government rebellions fail as in the Beijing Tiananmen Square protests and attempts at democracy in 1989. Others succeed and the fall of the incumbent governments are celebrated to this day. Notable examples include the US 1776 Independence Day on the fourth of July and the French celebration each fourteenth of July, celebrating the storming of the Bastille in 1789.

More recently in the 1960s and 70s, the Vietnam War caused consistent protests in the Western world, giving rise to the term ‘the protest era’ and spawning an entire generation of protest music. These protests, though often large, were mostly peaceful and not really designed to overthrow governments. However, in May 1970 four students were killed at a protest at Kent State University in Ohio, USA. Consequently four million students went on strike, which accelerated public awareness and it is likely that subsequently some democratic countries peacefully changed from conservative to progressive governments.

Early Technological Factors

During events such as the American war of independence and the French revolution there was no communications technology to speak of, riders on horseback and word of mouth were the order of the day. By the time of the Vietnam War, radio and television broadcasting was ubiquitous and the politically charged music of the time was widely available in recorded form. By the time of the Tiananmen Square protests, the mobile had been invented and available for almost four years, although it is not obvious how readily available that technology was in China. The internet had evolved out of the laboratories by the late 1980s but had not been commercialised until 1995.

More Recent Technological Factors

It was a number of years after modern mobile phones become available in 1985 that the first SMS message was sent. This message was sent over the Vodafone GSM network in the United Kingdom on 3 December 1992, using a personal computer with an Orbitel 901 handset. The text of the message was “Merry Christmas”. The reason that this marks a significant milestone is that from that time forward any one individual using a mobile device could send a message to many people simultaneously.

Social Networking

2002 saw the introduction of the Friendster internet site and the first BlackBerry smartphone. Since then smartphones, which are those with internet access as well as normal voice and SMS capabilities, have further evolved and by 2012 it is estimated that over 43% of mobile phones are smartphones. MySpace came on the scene in 2003 followed by Facebook in 2004, YouTube in 2005 and Twitter in 2006. As these sites became ubiquitous all that was needed was an easy to use touch screen smartphone and this call was answered in 2007 with the release of the first iPhone. This convergence saw an explosion of global instant social networking.

Towards the end of 2010 an uprising started in Tunisia with anti-government protesters mainly using Facebook to keep each other informed of unfolding events.

In December the Tunisian government began collecting Facebook user details including log-ins and passwords and then using the information to delete pages, groups, and entire accounts. However the protests didn’t stop
and in January 2011, the government
attempted to appease the protesters by reversing bans on sites such as YouTube. The tactic failed
and soon after this, the government was overthrown and the ‘Arab Spring’ was born.

The situation became contagious and in January 2011, street protests in Egypt became violent. Egyptian protesters started a Facebook page idolising a slain man and naming their page ‘We are all Khaled Said’ in his honour. In an attempt to mitigate the protests, the government shut down the entire Egyptian internet from the 27th of January until the 2nd of February. The protests grew and on the 11th of February, President Hosni Mubarak resigned. Civil unrest and violence in Egypt continues to the present time. The spread of unrest continued across the Middle East throughout 2011 with social media often acting as the catalyst.  The Libyan government was overthrown and its leaders and their families were murdered by the dissidents. Meanwhile Syria is still embroiled in civil war.

Uprising Of Violence In The Western World.

Since 2011 and into 2012 there has been an upswing of social network directed unrest in western democratic countries, notably England through the 2011 riots, as well as Australia and the USA through the Occupy campaigns. In August, London and other cities in Britain were the scenes of extreme violence resulting in several deaths. On August 4, 2011 police officers shot and killed a local man in Tottenham and within two days the crowds had resorted to rioting and looting. Over the next several days and nights the rioting had ‘gone viral’ through the reported use of social media and text messaging and spread to several other cities in including Liverpool, Bristol, Birmingham and Manchester.

By 15 August order had been restored, over three thousand people had been arrested and five people had been killed. It is estimated that property damage there was over £200 million.

British officials believe that social media played a significant role in igniting and organising rioters while users of YouTube from all over the world were able to see the postings of rioters and ordinary citizens in near real time. Twitter was another service which was used by rioters and citizens alike, it is popular because of its easy-to- use hash tag and re-tweet functions. The hash tag utility allows people who have never met to unite under a common cause.

In July of 2011, called on 20,000 people to “occupy wall street for a few months”. The Occupy movement was spawned, but even though thousands of people answered the call in many cities, including some in Australia and though some of the occupiers have stayed in place for many months, the movement has not progressed into riots and has basically petered out.


Due to the speed and exponential nature of the social networking tools available to the public at large, it is very difficult for law enforcement and other government agencies to react at a similar pace. In a democracy it is also problematic for governments to be proactive especially since it is legally acceptable to gather in public places. Turning off the internet is also not a viable option, since resilience of the network is one of the original design features and even if it were technically possible, this action would bring countless functions of business and government to a halt.

However, there are tools and methods that can be used to retard the progression from a peaceful gathering to riots and violent rebellion. In London, where the smartphone of choice was the BlackBerry, police were able to obtain tracking information from Research In Motion (RIM) the Canadian company that makes the BlackBerry. Facebook is also a double-edged sword; protesters can use it to organise gatherings, but because of its exponential nature it is never obvious whether the ‘friends’ of some ‘friends’ are connected to law enforcement, or are any other form of ‘double agent’.

Law enforcement agencies also have tools at their disposal that are not publicly available and others that are not generally well known. Examples include the Geographic Incident Reaction Database (GRID) and crowd sourcing maps such as those enabled by geowikis. During the London riots Google Maps was used interactively to track events.

Technology is totally agnostic and will always be used by each side in a conflict. It is the continuous evolution of the shield and the sword. The internet, social networks and smartphones are being used daily for legitimate and peaceful purposes, but these technologies and the convergence of them can be quickly adapted for other activities such as organising less than peaceful protests, riots and even civil war. The same technologies are also available to the governments under attack and their law enforcement agencies. This contest will continue for the foreseeable future.

Jurgen Opfer is a consultant in Defence Security and Intelligence. He has a Masters in Transnational Crime Prevention, is a member of the Australian Institute of Professional Intelligence Officers and a member of the IEEE. He is member of the Old Crows, the Electronic Warfare & Information Operations Association and is on the board of directors of the Australian Chapter.