Update: After a chat with @greatbong on Twitter, I’d need to change my perspective on this post, but let me retain it since this is what I believe it should be, though, legally, it is quite clear. @greatbong makes a clear case that there are only 3 states of information – public, private or restricted (needs legal permission to access). In this case, information that was formerly available within a police station (public), is now available online, free-for-all. Equally public, logically. Cumbersome access (the part of going to custodians of information) is not restricted access, as @greatbong rightly argued – that was definitely a flaw in my assumption.

The only perspective I can add is the ease of access to such information may have dramatically different consequences that we may not be able to grapple with presently. The semi-restricted access (information kept in the custody of protectors of law) and the fact that it was not digitally available (perhaps) makes that data movement limited, in the real world. In the digital world, such data could be used, sliced and diced in many ways and may impact lives of temporary, circumstantial criminals…and perhaps turn them into lifelong criminals as a comment says, below.

Original post:

I came across this blog post on Media Culpa earlier today – London Police name and shame rioters on Flickr. The post refers to this as ‘abuse of power’ and since I completely agree with this point of view, I tweeted and G+’d it. That led to a couple of debates where some people started wondering why this seems acceptable.

Here’s why.

But, before that, let me make a distinction between what UK police did to help them identify rioters – they posted security camera shots of people they suspected were rioters, on Flickr and requested people to share information about them. This is simply taking online the age-old ‘Wanted’ poster pasted in the town hall. What they have done now is very different – the Metropolitan Police has now posted details of 64 rioters who have been convicted, on Flickr, with a lot of personal details. They had even tweeted names of rioters, along with personal details and this spread far and wide, like most things on Twitter. I could of course argue that even seeking identification online is a wrong precedent, but photo-based search is still in its infancy at a end-user level, so it may not do much harm – for now.

Now, to the reasons.

1. A comment on Google+ mentioned that these information are public records anyway, so sharing them on Flickr isn’t really different, far from being wrong. I tend to see naming and shaming online, on a public platform like Flickr no less, as a tattoo adorning a rioter’s forehead. In comparison, a police public record, I believe, is available on demand.

For instance, if one of these rioters were to look for a job, later in life, they would no doubt be asked to furnish details of police record, if any, as part of a normal, new employee screening. At that point in time, they may choose to furnish this information, or the prospective employer may choose to seek personal details from the police, depending on the type of job applied for. But, if the prospective employer’s HR guy is to do a name search on the internet (which is extremely probable and normal these days), these Flickr ‘naming and shaming’ may pop up and it could possibly lead to a very different judgment on this person, however reformed he may be.

Not just prospective employers, anybody who cares to do a name search and find these rioters’ names online may jump to a conclusion about their character, at any point in time, even long after they may have reformed.

2. That’s the next point – this online ‘naming and shaming’ doesn’t seem to be helping the cause of policing. If the intention is to punish and let someone realize the mistake committed, it should be done within the scope of law. Does law insist on shaming rioters in front of the entire world, for perpetuity? I don’t think so – but this online naming and shaming is precisely that, in my opinion.

3. There are things that need to be and should be made public (with or without social media) and there are things that need to be dealt with in private. If the logic of London Police is to name and shame rioters on Flickr, then why not take it to the next logical level – name and shame companies that default on tax, online? And of course, make a master list of all citizens in UK and list any police case registered against them and make all of this easily searchable. As silly as it sounds, this Flickr naming and shaming is just a microcosm of this larger idea.

4. Nothing posted online is ever temporary – everything gets cached and remains in some form or other, permanently. If London Police decides in future to remove these rioters’ names and pictures from Flickr, and it still remains in some cached form…and a rioter decides to turn over a new leaf (no, please don’t laugh – just as you may assume ‘once a rioter always a rioter’, I could assume ‘every rioter could turn into a new leaf’ too!), the cached naming and shaming doesn’t help in any way at all. It would perhaps lead to people to form preconceived opinions about this rioter-turning-over-into-a-new-leaf. After all, we are in an age where ‘liking’ a thing on Facebook could be judged in multiple ways!

5. An obvious fallout is due to the amount of information shared online – this includes name, date of birth, street/location, offense and sentence! What happens when the society uses this detailed information set to ostracize the rioters? Aren’t we assuming that these rioters will always remains criminals and not giving them even an iota of chance to reform? Is London Police authorized to make – and spread – such sweeping assumptions about any individual – rioter or not?

So, in my opinion, this is certainly abuse of power and information. It undermines the value of policing and degrades the profession. We have come a long way from medieval naming-and-shaming style justice – it’s a pity social media is used to rake up this all over again.

On a related note: there is a reason why I don’t agree with Indian state-level police departments opening grievance cells on Facebook.

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