Rhodri Marsden: Should Facebook be used by the police?

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The Independent Tech

During a tedious journey through the environs of Bishop's Stortford last week, I was tailgated for 10 minutes by an idiot in a white van who was talking angrily into his mobile phone, presumably letting someone know that his progress was being impeded by an idiot in a blue car. Your options in such a situation are limited; get cross and slow down to cause them maximum irritation, pull in and let them pass, or attempt to pull off an improbable citizens arrest. But citizens of Delhi now have another course of action at their disposal: take a picture of the offender, post it on a Facebook page set up by the local traffic police and wait for justice to take its course.

They'll have no shortage of incidents to digitally capture; India experiences more traffic fatalities than any other country, and as my friend Mick memorably recounted to me once, in India they drive on the left – and overtake on the left, and drive on the right, and operate under the perturbing rule of "merely worry about what the person in front of you is doing".

No wonder Delhi's crowd-sourcing approach to policing is proving popular; more than 17,000 people are listed as a "fan" of the page, with some 3,000 photographs having led to more than 600 tickets being issued so far. It's unclear whether it's working because of a deep seated urge to snoop and snitch, or because it taps into the indignation we experience when witnessing bad driving, but it's partly down to the ease with which it's suddenly possible to communicate with law-enforcement bodies (not generally renowned for their openness) via a social media platform. Delhi traffic police set up the page simply to improve their dialogue with the public, not expecting for a moment that it would improve their clear-up rate on the Mehrauli-Badarpur road near the Khampur crossing.

It doesn't take a great legal or philosophical mind to realise the potential problems with this. The ease with which photos can be staged or digitally doctored makes the cameraphone snap a potentially dodgy piece of evidence; Facebook's policy of only allowing you to post under your real name should conceivably make people accountable for their accusations, but the page (viewable at bit.ly/delhi-traffic) already has pseudonymous posts from people like "Responsible Citizen", which does lead things into a sinister area.

Then there's the slightly disturbing spectacle of internet vigilantism; the disconcerting feeling we get from seeing photos of people or their cars posted by the public on a public forum, alongside calls for punishment. But there's also the way this rebounds on society; the idea we're being watched and our movements being recorded – and not by a sinister government machine, but each other. It's only a matter of time before Delhi police receive a photo of someone snapping someone who was driving while taking a picture of someone else driving recklessly. Imagine the paperwork.



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I would happily never read another blog or article breathlessly reporting how some celebrity or other has been using social media. "Human being communicates!" But if it wasn't depressing enough that minutiae from the keyboards of the famous and semi-famous make national news, things are set to get a whole heap worse with the launch this week of a service which allows you to pay to receive personalised messages from celebrities via Facebook.

The company behind it are calling it "the social cameo". Having signed up a clutch of American athletes and glitzy entertainers (we may have to wait a while before Dame Judi Dench gets on board) they've started a scheme whereby you can purchase Facebook Credits and exchange them for the dubious privilege of someone you don't even know wishing you a swift recovery from your recent kidney operation, while in reality they couldn't give a monkey's above and beyond the Facebook Credits you've purchased. Conceived of as a way of letting us "take a step closer to celebrities", it actually marks the distinction even more by putting a financial value on a depressingly valueless communication. Annoyed that Mariah Carey didn't reply to your tweet? OK, how about bunging her 30 quid?

In the press release, we're asked to believe that ex-Baywatch star Carmen Electra said "It is an innovative way for me to socialise daily with millions of people and be a fun addition to the important events in their lives." Before adding, presumably: "I don't actually have to talk to anyone, do I? Good."

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