Emergent Technology, Social Media and Responding to Crime in Contemporary Society

Eleanor Parsons - Writer

Emergent technologies are any technologies, software or hardware developed since the introduction of the Internet. These technologies have sped up globalisation, creating worldwide reaching communication channels which operate in real time. In recent years, the misuse of these technologies has contributed to issues such as increased radicalisation into terrorist organisations through the use of social media, or major international crisis as seen during the Wannacry virus attack in 2017.

As such, retrospective legal or political responses to crime no longer meet the risks that misuse of these technologies pose. These responses must now change in order to address the growing contemporary threat. However, where we move to a society of suspicion and monitoring rather than retrospective investigation, we put the whole population at risk of having their civil liberties eroded, and the protective rule of law weakened. The question is, where should the line be drawn in contemporary society?

The rule of law/previous policy:

The key principle of the rule of law, as defined by Edwards is that offenders should be prosecuted on the facts, after the event, beyond all reasonable doubt, and be punished in a proportionate way. The reality is that this cannot be achieved in current circumstances in specific areas of increased threat, such as in cybercrime and terrorism. This is mainly due to perpetrators being too hard to trace, or the harm if the risk is allowed to materialise is too great. Bush in 2002, responding to the 9/11 attacks (which largely sped up the shift to a more preventive turn in policy across western democracies) stated that ‘if we wait for threats to materialise, we will have waited too long’. This rhetoric has only been strengthened further in the increasing number of attacks suffered in recent years. New responses to crime have been cried out for.

The impact of emergent technology:

Emergent technologies have created an increasingly globalised world. The harm that can be caused by criminal acts in contemporary society vastly outweigh those that have been seen in the past. Crime can now easily cross predetermined state boundaries. This causes major logistical issues when considering the differences between jurisdictions, cultures and legal systems. If one country has a zero tolerance approach to the misuse of social media, and another has an extremely liberal approach, how can this be policed in the digital age?

A different example is that of the worldwide Wannacry attack in 2017, which particularly affected the NHS in the UK. This led to the postponement of 19,000 appointments at a cost of £92 million to the taxpayer. Such attacks highlight how critical infrastructure can be affected on a large scale, and how particular institutions may be targeted through the use of emergent technology. Again, this highlights the issue of crime crossing the state boundary too. However, even with the catastrophic damage caused, other than international blame-games, no one was held solely accountable nor punished for this attack. This would suggest our current retrospective approach to punishment and civil control is insufficient for the threats of emergent technology.

More concerningly, wide ranging crimes such as the virus attack above can now be carried out by individuals in their own homes. The internet and emergent technology have given citizens power online, intended for positive aims. At the same time however, they have armed others with a serious tool for harm. One answer is to act preemptively, looking out for warning signs before a crime occurs.

However, imposing preemptive policy responses puts individuals freedom and liberty at risk. You can only act preemptively if you have been monitoring a whole population, or more concerningly, identifying ‘risk populations’ through labelling and targeting. The use of surveillance such as through CCTV and monitoring of online usage has already been seen in our society. This will always be discriminatory in nature, to varying degrees.

At one end of the spectrum, you hold target populations in different regard which could lead to self-fulfilling prophecies, creating the very risks you seek to avoid in the first place. At the other end, you hold target populations in complete suspicion, segregating and discriminating against them and in turn, limiting their liberty. Neither situation is palatable within contemporary society, and yet it seems to be the direction in which we are heading in order to deal with a new realm of threats.

The increased use of social media:

The increased use of social media is also seeing new crimes emerge through the use of the platforms themselves for hate speech, sexual exploitation and ‘digital wildfires’. These crimes already exist in a traditional format, but are now seen widely online too. The mechanisms available to combat these issues in the online form however leave a lot to be desired.

The alternative could be to introduce full surveillance across social media platforms, in order to identify any risks. We are already aware that surveillance happens to a certain degree through the personalised ads we see following online searches made whilst having these platforms open in the background. However, if we move to using this technology as a response to crime rather than to simply advertise the latest products, we should be concerned about unwanted consequences and miscarriages of justice.

This was highlighted when a historian’s post surrounding the ‘Napalm Girl’ photo in the Vietnam war was taken down, cited as a child pornography violation. Similar issues were discussed further in the recent Horizon documentary about Facebook. Here, sole use of preemptive action and online ‘detection technology’ could have led to a miscarriage of justice, and unwarranted punishment for sharing an image of clear historical significance.

Social media and data misuse:

Social media also poses threats from the other side, through the misuse of data collected by the platforms for commercial gain. During the 2010’s and onwards, as increasing numbers of the UK population set up social media accounts (with now 67% of the population holding accounts on these platforms in the UK), big breaches hit news headlines from companies such as Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, who lost and sold consumer data to hackers and other entities.

This data could be used to commit further crimes such as fraud and online threats. Some data was allegedly used to discredit politicians and affect the due process of major elections in the US and elsewhere. This is another example of emergent technologies impacting upon the traditional methods of governance in our societies. It is also an example of the difficulties our traditional responses to crime face when dealing with such a new and fluid threat. The difficulty now is how to identify the perpetrators of such crimes and bring them to justice, whilst not infringing the civil liberties of all online users.

The challenge going forward:

Whilst the area brings with it new challenges, it is clear to see that emergent technologies are here to stay, and are truly embedded into our contemporary society. By the same token, there is little doubt that they have brought with them new threats that must be addressed in order to keep society safe. The question remains, how far are we willing to lose our own civil liberties in order to respond to the changing crime threats that continue to emerge as a result?

Edwards, Adam 2016. Big data, predictive machines and security: the minority report. In: McGuire, M.R. and Holt, T.R. eds. The Routledge Handbook of Technology, Crime and Justice, Routledge International Handbooks, Routledge, pp. 451-460.



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