News | Demilitarize McGill denounces social network research

Activists criticize social control applications of surveillance

On August 3, campus direct action group Demilitarize McGill released a set of access to information (ATI) documents pertaining to the research done by Derek Ruths, an associate professor at the McGill School of Computer Science and the supervisor of the Network Dynamics Lab.

According to its website, the Network Dynamics Lab does research on measuring and predicting large-scale human behaviour. The lab receives up to $85,100 in funding from the federal government as part of the Kanishka Project Contribution Program, a multi-year investment in terrorism-focused research, to study “a system for measuring population response to a crisis in online social networks.”

Demilitarize McGill pointed to two particular sets of slides that have been released as part of the ATI documents. The slides, which Ruths has presented to Public Safety Canada (PSC) include the Montreal student protests of 2012 as an example of “uncoordinated mobilization.”

Demilitarize McGill alleges that Ruths’ research could be used by police and intelligence agencies not only to surveil social movements, but also to control them.

“The thing about Ruths’ research is that it’s not peer surveillance. We know that peer surveillance is already happening, we know the stories about the [Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP)] creating fake Facebook profiles and following activists, and we know that activist spaces get regularly infiltrated,” Mona Luxion, a PhD candidate in the School of Urban Planning and an organizer with Demilitarize McGill, told The Daily.

“What’s interesting and concerning about Ruths’ research is that it’s pushing the boundaries of what you can do with the surveillance and with that data.”

“What’s interesting and concerning about Ruths’ research is that it’s pushing the boundaries of what you can do with the surveillance and with that data,” continued Luxion. “Ideally, this work is not just about understanding people’s responses, but also about how the government can influence those responses by intervening in those social networks – especially virtual social networks, but also the real-world social networks that they represent.”

In an interview with The Daily, Ruths admitted that his research, which attempts to model and infer people’s characteristics based on their social media activity, could be used in ways other than originally intended.

“I fully acknowledge that there are nefarious actors out there, who could pick up and use this technology. […] You know, bad guys are going to do this. Bad guys, whether they be badly intentioned police officers, or government officials, or just bad governments… They’re just going to do this. The technology is fairly out there,” Ruths said.

“What I think is really important about this work is that it happens in the open. We are as transparent as you can get,” he continued.

Ruths also characterized the allegations made by Demilitarize McGill as “ridiculous.”

“There is nothing that I have provided [to the PSC] that is actually usable. I haven’t given them software, I haven’t actually conducted detailed analysis, there is no person that I’ve been in contact [with] who is in any way capable of picking up the systems in the form that I’ve built them and using them for this purpose,” he explained.

According to Luxion, however, “The point here […] is not only about what the researcher’s intent is with any one particular project, but the way in which that fits into broader trends and the potential applications once that technology or knowledge is available.”

“The police do not act as a neutral or quasi-neutral force in society.”

“The point is, academic research is to disseminate and add to knowledge and, to some extent, the point of governments is to consolidate that knowledge and implement it through policy and action,” Luxion continued.

Nevertheless, Ruths maintains that his research aims to help law enforcement engage with social movements in a constructive way, by making them understand the reasons why people engage in direct action.

Montreal-based community organizer Jaggi Singh said Ruths’ response was an example of “an astounding naivete about the police and how they operate.”

“If you believe the police are a neutral force within society that somehow [navigate] neutrally between governments and corporations and military and social movements, then that might make some sense. But that, of course, is not the reality. The police do not act as a neutral or quasi-neutral force in society,” Singh told The Daily.

“Unfortunately, it’s a naive point of view you often get [in] academia, where people, because they are within the framework of an academic setting, feel like they can make some sort of proclamation towards neutrality or objectivity.”

Surveillance versus control

According to Brenda McPhail, the Privacy, Surveillance, and Technology Project Director at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), there is a major difference between monitoring a social movement and controlling it.

“Any effort to control citizens, preventing them from exercising their Charter-protected rights, I think, is profoundly troubling. That doesn’t seem to have a place in a Canadian society that believes in democratic process, that believes in the right to dissent, that believes in the value of free expression,” McPhail told The Daily.

Singh emphasized that surveillance is a widespread issue. “Already we know that the police and army are part of an apparatus [that is] involved in surveillance – that already exists,” Singh said, adding that the criticism of the Network Dynamics Lab’s work shouldn’t distract from existing repressive surveillance.

“Knowledge is power and knowing how these things work can be used for either good or ill.”

“There are already clear structural ways in which this level of surveillance and repression operates within our society and, unfortunately, it’s widely accepted.”

McPhail believes that “knowledge is power and knowing how these things work can be used for either good or ill. I think that it is problematic if the purpose of the research is to provide tactics for law enforcement or surveillance intelligence bodies to exercise social control.”

For Luxion, law enforcement’s interest in Ruths’ research represents “a desire to co-opt movements, [and] direct people’s thinking without ever having to get into physical altercations.”

“Being transparent about what it is you’re doing doesn’t eliminate that risk [of co-option],” said Luxion.

“Is it ethical to do research that you know will have that result of enhancing states’ capabilities to repress movements? It’s not just the states that you agree with. At some point, that capacity is available to anyone regardless of who is in power, regardless of what the government is.”

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