A 'Trustworthy' Social Network For The Occupy Movement: Even If They Build It, Can They Ever Trust It?

from the weakest-link-in-the-chain dept

The role of technology in the wave of protests that swept the world last year is a matter of debate. While some claim that social networks and mobile phones allowed protesters to organize themselves with an unprecedented speed and efficiency, others have seen their role as marginal ? or even counterproductive, since these same technologies also allow governments to monitor events with greater ease than in pre-Internet days.

One group aligned with the Occupy movement is situated somewhere in the middle. That is, it recognizes the important role that technology can play, but sees increasing problems with today’s social media. The solution, they believe, is to create a new social network specifically aimed at helping protest movements scale up their activities by linking like-minded people around the world:

What we need, at this point, is a platform that allows us to radically democratize our global organizational efforts. In addition to the local squares, we now need a global square where people of all nations can come together as equals to participate in the coordination of collective actions and the formulation of common goals and aspirations. For this reason, we call upon the revolutionary wizkids of the world to unite and assist in the development of a new online platform ? The Global Square ? that combines the communicative functions of the existing social networks with the political functions of the assemblies to provide crucial new tools for the development of our global movement.

The same post has an interesting list of requirements for such a system, which will be open source. That’s certainly wise, since it will allow volunteers to contribute, but it does raise the question: why not use one of the existing open source social networks like identi.ca, elgg, or ? perhaps the best-known example ? Diaspora?

One of the key differences of the proposed social network from those is the central importance of trust, as this feature on The Global Square in Wired explains:

One challenge that all of the new efforts face is a very difficult one for non-centralized services: ensuring that members are trustworthy. That?s critical for activists who risk injury and arrest in all countries and even death in some. To build trust, local and international networks will use a friend-of-a-friend model in Knutson and Boyer?s projects. People can?t become full members on their own as they can with social networks like Twitter, Facebook and Google+.

Although that sounds fine in theory, recent events in the UK suggest that it might not help much in practice. A year ago, the Guardian broke a story about a police officer there who, for seven years:

lived deep undercover at the heart of the environmental protest movement, travelling to 22 countries gleaning information and playing a frontline role in some of the most high-profile confrontations

Nor was this an isolated case, as another Guardian story reported:

Five of the seven undercover police officers in the protest movement who have been exposed so far have admitted having or have been alleged to have had sexual relationships with activists they were keeping under surveillance, despite claims by senior police officers that this was banned.

It seems unlikely that employing the “friend-of-a-friend” approach to trust would have kept many of them out of the network.

In fact it’s hard to see how any social network technology can get around the problem that undercover agents will always find a way to subvert trust systems by exploiting their weakest points: other people. That means that the real challenge facing The Global Square is not technical ? how to keep out spies – but social: how to cope with the fact that you can’t.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and on Google+

Filed Under: , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “A 'Trustworthy' Social Network For The Occupy Movement: Even If They Build It, Can They Ever Trust It?”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
F! says:

Nothing wrong with the fact that ‘the authorities’ can see the communications between occupiers. Transparency is core to the movement. Without transparency, the movement cannot truly represent the 99%.

This also allows a public record of events to be created, which can only serve to strengthen the movement, as well as placate and inform critics who haven’t yet grasped that we are all in this together.

Citizen2012 says:

> Nothing wrong with the fact that ‘the authorities’ can see the communications between occupiers.

That is a comment of such staggering naivety in the context of repressive regimes gathering intelligence on dissidents that I can only assume that you are a copper. Having [Gadaffi|Assad|Insert dictator]’s secret police be able to trace all your relationships puts your and other people’s lives in danger. Even in “democratic” countries people are likley to be arrested, raided be denied job opportunities and so on because of state subservience on social networks.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re:

There’s this girl that is an activist for the sex workers rights, I follow her on tweeter. These days we were talking about how FBI followed and monitored her for a while because she’s some sort of leadership in these protests. US, land of the free. So yes, I can see your point and I agree.

Diaspora seems to be a pretty good alternative for Facebook. I guess we need to check the existing options and check which are more ‘protest’ friendly.

F! says:


There is no way to enforce systems of trust (passwords, last-minute contacts, etc.). These can and will be compromised. A completely transparent system is the only one that cannot be compromised.

What is naive is the belief that ‘secrecy’ can solve the problems on this scale. Sure it might help to overthrow the current regime more quickly, but without transparency the systems of corruption will reproduce themselves and we’ll be back where we started. (Meet the new boss, same as the old boss) Secrecy is like cheating on a test, it may get you the passing grade, but you’ve still lost because you didn’t learn the lesson.

The only way to break the cycle is to not make the same mistakes that got us into this mess in the first place.

Violated (profile) says:


Such a gathering to me sounds like how 4Chan morphs into Anonymous for chaotic organization and activist action. They got busted as well you may recall.

It is not possible to run a secure system without rampant paranoia and always doubting your friends. The best option is to establish an open organization and command structure and then to use speed to beat the opposition.

Like have all member’s cell phone numbers. Then on the day of action use both a new phone and new SIM to SMS them all calling them to arms at X place only 30 to 60 mins meeting time away.

The protesters win this one when people turn up how and when they can from several directions. The opposition have a much harder time assembling a large enough team and to outfit them all with equipment and plans in such a short time.

Better yet they can assemble teams to complete certain tasks like to barricade roads to delay progress in their plans to break up the protesters. They can do a lot of preparation ahead of time and the key part is always mass assembly on very short notice. Occupy Wall Street could have worked much better had this occurred.

Violated (profile) says:

Re: Re: Speed

4Chan did join the blackout yesterday but they were not the biggest voice on the Net. Anonymous can be a very effective group when they get organized and be thankful they do often take a stand on issues when so many do not.

There are of course many other protest groups and currently I am sorry for them what with the current snow and ice.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Even the Hells Angels was infiltrated

Any1 can pretend to be what they aren’t to perfection. There’s no infallible system to prevent such ‘intrusions’. The issue is, how can you live with that? How can damages of a possible betrayal can be kept to a minimum? Or how to make the cost of betrayal big enough to discourage that?

Anonymous Coward says:

Trust systems are evil.

By their very structure, trust systems are top-down, based on a “trusted” authority. The US Department of Defense official DEFINITION of a “trusted system” is one that can BREAK your security systems. Trusted systems are inherently authoritarian. That authority may be a government, it may be a central part of an organization, like Microsoft, or Linux, or your company’s network admin, but they are all authoritarian.

What is needed is a security system that does not rely on trust. Such a system would rely instead on reputations that would change dynamically based on a continual evaluation of their demonstrated past behavior and on one’s own policies and prejudices.

Anonymous Coward says:

Two Systems

I think they need two systems. One which is open to anyone, authorities included, that automatically uses Tor or some such to anonymiize so much as possible. This system would be for discussion and revelations of corruption or other intrigue.

The other system is the difficult one. It is for planning and executing operations. This is the one that needs to be secure from authorities. I think a sneaker-net style is the way to go with this, as no amount of Tor or any trust based, or for that matter relationship based system will keep out a determined adversary. Even this has the issue of potential infiltration, because it too would be relationship based, at the very least. They might consider a several to many relationship (broadcast from multiple instigator emitters).

BTW, the first system should not practice censorship as the original Occupy Wall Street system did. I tried to post a longer comment, which was rejected out of had, and the temerity to call me a jerk for trying. Too bad. They may not have agreed with everything I said, but they are poorer for not having heard it.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...