Police vs. Activists in collection of G20 digital record

Weeks after Toronto played host to the G20 summit, the protests and intense police presence are still reverberating through social media.

Brian Jackson, journalist
Brian Jackson

Pictures and videos of burning police cruisers and protester pinned to the pavement have spread across Flickr, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, etc. in vast multitude. With so much digital record of that disruptive weekend obviously at the public’s fingertips, it was no surprise when Toronto Police realized such evidence might come in useful.

Detective Sergeant Gary Giroux, of the G20 investigative team, held a press conference July 7 and asked Torontonians to send their documented evidence of vandalism and violence over G20 summit. The police seem most concerned about identifying individuals involved in torching a scout car.

burning police scout car
Police want help identifying vandals from the G20 weekend.

“The persons responsible for the assault of officers, the burning of our marked police vehicles and damage done to downtown buildings and the surrounding areas will be held accountable for their criminal conduct,” Giroux said at the press conference.

Tapping a civilian population to collect evidence about one another and then corroborate with police is rife with Orwellian overtones. As if the temporary CCTV cameras installed to watch the crowds in publics spaces of Toronto over that weekend weren’t enough, now the police want those crowds to help them collect video of suspects from every possible angle.

Giroux’s tone when asking for these images doesn’t help anyone to feel warm and fuzzy about it either.

“I have extremely aggressive police officers assigned to me who would like nothing better than to go out and find these individuals who victimized our city,” he says.

But “extremely aggressive” cops are causing a mean G20 hangover for Toronto Police. It’s no surprise that most protester weren’t too interested in documenting evidence of each other so they could later snitch to police, but were more concerned with documenting the police’s use of force to hold them accountable later.

Now the Toronto Community Mobilization Network is countering the police with their own effort to collect the public’s evidence of police brutality over the weekend. But instead of relying on one central place to upload this media, like the police have done, this activist group is tapping social media as its database.

Police use batons
An activist group is collecting images of police brutality during the G20 summit.

Aside from e-mailing pictures to [email protected], the public is encouraged to upload photos to Flickr and videos to YouTube. All they have to do is tag them with a #G20PoliceViolence hash tag and the evidence will show up after a simple search query.

Taking a look at the evidence collected so far, the response has been fairly muted. Only four photos on Flickr and 12 videos on YouTube have been assigned the hash tag. But this is bound to change.

The police should take note that their centralized strategy for collecting media and storing it away from public review will result in a lop-sided representation of reality on the Web. As more photos and videos of alleged police brutality are shared on social networks, the perception will grow that police abused their powers during the protest – whether it’s a fair assessment or not.

But Giroux asked for it when they called out to the public to submit evidence. Because today’s surveillance society holds one important distinction from Orwell’s fictional account – the technology isn’t controlled only by the authorities, it’s also in the hands of the crowd.

Here’s looking at you, kid.

Brian Jackson
Brian Jackson
Editorial director of IT World Canada. Covering technology as it applies to business users. Multiple COPA award winner and now judge. Paddles a canoe as much as possible.

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