Up until maybe 10 years ago, if you wanted to infiltrate some kind of grass-roots group, you had to do it in person. Government agencies and other parties went to elaborate lengths to send someone in undercover, rubbing shoulders with the real group members at rallies, planning events and other get-togethers, to get an idea of what people were doing around a cause or effort.
Now, a lot of that can be done on social media — as an excellent example of this kind of modern espionage, new reports are surfacing showing that Canadian law enforcement personnel have been monitoring a variety of groups with a false Facebook profile that was made to look like the profile of a student activist, with a whimsical avatar: a group of penguins.
Reports show the Canadian government targeted many different kinds of groups, some of them within social movements, and others around national identities or just celebrity appeal. The RCMP’s ersatz social media account got connected with pages for the Black Lives Matter Toronto group, the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, and various Jewish and Palestinian groups, as well as the Twitter account of WWF wrestler Mick Foley.
Although the Canadian government has said they weren’t using these accounts for surveillance, citizens are crying foul about the methods used to keep tabs on legitimate and legal grass-roots activities done online.
What Went Down?
Getting into the issue deeper shows that what Canadian law enforcement chose to do with its infiltration potential ended up being a little bit weird. In a lot of cases, users took advantage of the profile to ask questions about activist events, for example, whether there would be any food. Although this could be a way to get intelligence on an event, it seems like a pretty useless approach. In general, there wasn’t a lot of deep interaction with the RCMP profile — but the phenomenon is still making news, partly because it goes directly to the heart of how we expect our government to interact with us through modern technologies.
In general, the Canadian government hasn’t adopted as much of an aggressive practice of targeting activist groups and events as its neighbor across the southern border. American law enforcement activities have triggered any number of large settlements with activists in cities like New York, Washington, DC, and Seattle, where activists have been not only infiltrated and spied on, but gassed, beaten and hit with rubber bullets. But new reports of deceptive activities share that the Canadian government does in some way monitor what’s going on within its borders.
All of this makes Web anonymity and privacy a real concern. It leads us to ask the tough questions about how we’re able to use the Internet as individuals and as consumers. It moves us to ask whether government and business have too much control over how we use the media, or too much access to the details about our lives that should stay private. Whether it’s government infiltration, deceptive marketing practices or anything else, privacy advocates continue to demand accountability from governments and a kinder, gentler approach to policing the net.
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