August 31, 2013

UN-Facebook Face-Off

At the end of last month, the United Nations rediscovered, when it asked Facebook for details of accounts run by Somali pirates, that it is not the United States of America. That country’s National Security Agency could get major US tech companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple to provide them information and data sent and shared by the likes of you and me; in fact, if Edward Snowden is to be believed, these setups were joined at the hip with the NSA, giving the now six-year old PRISM programme direct access to massive information-data mining on a gigantic scale. 

On the other hand, the UN’s Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea was ignored by Facebook last month when it requested a discussion on “information on Facebook accounts belonging to individuals involved in hijackings and hostage-taking." Facebook said that the UN had no jurisdiction.

I do not know what the UN hoped to accomplish with this attempt at information gathering from a social networking site. Did some lazy bureaucrat think he was going to sit behind a laptop and track down pirates and their backers in real life halfway across the world? Did the Somali militant group Al-Shabaab’s Twitter account shutdown in January (when they used it to threaten to kill Kenyan hostages) give somebody at the UN a gleam in the eye? Does anybody seriously expect pirates to make it easy to be tracked through social networking sites? 

All in all, it seems like a pretty useless thing to spend the international community’s money on, but then the UN is known for spending large amounts of money on useless things.

Closing the stable door after the horse has bolted, too. Somali piracy has declined, thanks to armed guards on ships (and little thanks to the UN or the IMO.) On the other hand, piracy on the other coast of Africa is doing quite well, thank you. Maybe the UN should focus its attention where the problem exists. Judging by the numbers of emails telling me of lotteries I have won, the Nigerians seem to use the internet copiously; I am sure they must be on Facebook too. 

I expect legitimate law enforcement agencies, including from those Asian countries whose seamen are badly affected by piracy, will probably be obstructed by Facebook and the like too, should they ask for information. It is a sign of the times that criminals can use sites like YouTube and others quite effectively to get their message across- pirates putting up short films of pathetic looking seamen hostages, threatening violence and demanding money, for example, and the ‘good guys’ cannot use that information- or what is behind that information- to track the criminals. Facebook, Microsoft, Google and the like can give direct access to my account to the US government, but giving indirect information to the UN on pirates is a no-no. 

Actually, the problem is not Facebook but the international community that the UN claims to represent. Assume, for a moment, that something tangible was to be gained by the UN getting access to pirate profiles from Facebook-that, by giving the UN the information it wanted, Facebook could have helped in striking a blow against piracy. It chose not to. It chose to hide behind some legalese, and the international community, represented by the UN, seems to have accepted that. It appears that criminals have a right to privacy but hostage crews do not.

No surprise then, that people like me wonder. When wars, occupation and loot of countries like Iraq can be sanctioned based on confessed lies at the UN, as in Colin Powell’s case, why it is that the truth cannot be used to protect seamen and the ninety per cent of world trade figure that I am so sick of hearing about?

If the US wanted, it could slap a subpoena on Facebook’s ass before breakfast tomorrow morning, and Facebook would have to cough up whatever the UN wanted it to.



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