Governments across the globe have been trying to deal with Cybercrime and its impact on our communities. Some have done a better job than others in responding to those crimes. The rise in Internet users over the past decade and our dependence on it as a medium for communication has increased the number of concerned citizen users. The Internet is no longer just a tool to do our shopping from our home, or a tool to research a school paper. Through social networking the Internet is truly becoming a community. With those communities come problems, but also concerned citizens, ready to rise up and act in the best interests of their community.
Law enforcement is still grappling with its response to enforcing the law on the Internet. They continue to meet the challenges with mixed results. Because of this enforcement vacuum there recently has been a rise in what can only be described as citizen activists. The rise in social networking has brought together many diverse people. The commonality among them is their willingness to protect their piece of the Internet. As evidence of this are several examples of concerned netizens standing up and taking actions to protect their Internet.
Twitter, the recent social networking phenomenon, gave rise to an incident recently”, as commented on by socialmedia.biz, where a “Twitterer” in Virginia found a threat posted on a Wikipedia page against a school in St. Louis. Enlisting others from the Twitter ranks they tracked down information about the student posting the threat and made plans via Twitter about what to do with the information. The local police department was contacted and the threat relayed. However, the police complaint taker was less than cooperative according to reports and stated he “did not have access to the Web”. Another neighboring agency was contacted and appropriate actions were taken to resolve the issue.
And as far away as China, the Internet is changing the way the people feel about, and communicate. Locating people online has become almost a sport. When unpleasant comments were posted online after the earthquake deaths in the Sichuan province, numerous Netizens researched and attacked the posters online. Even Chinese government officials are not immune from response. With millions of people online, the Chinese government is finding it increasingly difficult to control its citizen’s response to overzealous government officials. Wearing a $25,000 watch in the picture you post on the Internet is not a probably a good idea when your government salary is not enough to cover its cost. The official was later dismissed partly I am sure to the Netizens complaints. In China this growing trend of Cyber-vigilantism is called “renrou sousuo”, or “human-flesh searches”. It is done spontaneously by Netizens to ferret out perceived wrong doers.
To the extreme in this country we have the Texas Border Watch program. This is a novel concept of recruiting Cyber border watchers. Individuals can watch streaming video over the Internet from cameras mounted at various locations on the southern U.S. Border and report suspicious activity. According to a report by NPR, “43,000 pairs of eyes are watching the Texas-Mexico border”. Netizens observations of the border have lead to arrests of wrongdoers.
Cyber Vigilantism is not necessarily new. A few years ago a Korean girl was publically humiliated online after not picking up after her dog on a train. In the late 1990’s Cyber-vigilantism was thought to be a reasonable response to the emerging online crime problem because of law enforcements inability to respond to the problem. Even extremists groups have been tracked by vigilantes on the web. It’s a popular enough concept that Wikipedia has a page defining it.
The dark side of this argument has been groups such as Perverted Justice whose regular work was chasing those who would prey on our children on the Internet. Their member’s antics have been regularly discredited as well as praised for their aggressive and persistent actions which arguably may not be within the law. In the UK recently a law was passed to try and curtail the extreme amount of pornography found on the Internet. The “Extreme Porn” law has given rise to a group, the Enforcers of the Extreme Porn Law, who are dissatisfied with UK law enforcements position about not actively policing extreme porn.
How much have law enforcements response to Internet crime changed in the past decade? Certainly law enforcement has gotten better at dealing with the technology and on many levels their response is better. Many law enforcement agencies are even using social networking sites to communicate with its citizens. But there is no real drive to recruit netizens to become the eyes and ears of law enforcement online. In a recent blog entry by Bill Schrier in his blog “Note from a City CIO” he wrote an article “Twitter, Facebook not ready for Government 2.0”. Ready or not Government will have to address social networking and the netizens on it, more likely sooner than anticipated at its growth rate.
With the isolated examples of netizens reaction to criminal’s online; law enforcement may be missing an opportunity to recruit a neighborhood “Net-Watch” type of faithful following. Law enforcement could guide netizens and encourage their support. With the Internets ability to mobilize vast numbers in response to a crime on the Internet an opportunity exists to establish a major blow to criminals everywhere. People now spend their waking hours, and some with web cameras, their sleeping ones too, online. It may be time for law enforcement to expand its online ranks with properly trained and recruited cyber watchers. It might also be a way of corralling the behavior of some of the Cyber vigilantes that have gone a little far in their attempts to hang online wrongdoers. Look out online criminals, your next door neighbor may soon be watching you.