The French interior minister Claude Gueant has decided to launch a viral marketing campaign to spread the notoriety of, a sousveillance commune attempting to enforce police accountability. Displaying a cunning knowledge of mass communications, he let a court order the whole site made inaccessible; thus drawing the ire of free speech activists and ensuring excellent conditions for a nice Streisand Effect. Even before the court order has been implemented there are already a wealth of alternative ways to access the site’s content – among others I2P, ED2K, Bittorrent and a nicely growing list of mirrors including one on this site (IPv6 only – let’s promote IPv6 while we are at it) which will stay up until I get a court order to take it down or police pressure I can’t handle. Funniest thing is that I haven’t even read the content of the site.

I could have mirrored it anonymously, but civil disobedience doesn’t carry much of a message if you are not ready to do it in your own name: provoking a debate is the whole point of my involvement.

What triggered the French Copwatch case is the site’s naming of law enforcement officers, in infraction of French law regulating the collection, storage, and use of personal data. There are also claims of slander and libel, but those are not worthy of discussion – the targeting of individuals is the meat of the case brought forth by police unions.

It may surprise you but I agree with the police unions : naming law enforcement officers and systematically exposing their personal data in a manner making them personally more vulnerable to public anger is bad.

So why am I misbehaving by mirroring on my host ? To have you talk about it. This is about ensuring that no one wants to publish something like Copwatch anymore. Even if law enforcement manages to stomp all the Web ants, technologies such as Tor hidden services and I2P guarantee that there is no way to eradicate information anymore – only to make it more difficult for the non technophile public to reach. So if we don’t want sites like Copwatch, it is the cause that must be attacked – Copwatch is only the symptom of some deeper disease.

In the French republic, law enforcement has a monopoly on legitimate violence, which is a good thing. In addition, law enforcement has powerful surveillance tools – those have never been as powerful as they are now, and their power is still growing. As the popular saying goes : “with great power comes great responsibility” – law enforcement is fine but only if it is accountable. Copwatch’s efforts may be misguided, but they illustrate a growing frustration from those involved in police violence and faced with police impunity: where to turn to for accountability when facing staggering power asymmetry ? They answer by starting an arms race between censor and watchers. No good will come out of that – we must make peace now : accept that censorship is pointless and imagine alternatives that guarantee that cases of illegitimate police violence are treated fairly – or even better, that they don’t happen.

A fight between the people and its own law enforcement is a losing proposition for every party involved – don’t do it ! Instead, make sure that institutional and individual acts of violence are easily documented and brought to court. Law enforcement is viable only if the people trusts its officers, but the relationship between the people and law enforcement is increasingly broken… Can we fix that ?

To make law enforcement officers accountable for their individual acts of violence, data must be collected from witnesses. But how to do it without naming them and exposing their personal data in a manner making them personally more vulnerable to public anger ? My proposal is to make prominent personal identifier displays part of what a law enforcement officer must feature to act legitimately as such. This identifier must point to the individual while keeping him anonymous. It must be displayed large enough to be readable through photography. This is only a single technical proposition, but the general idea to be pushed is for the police to be put under surveillance by the citizens who can easily gather enough information forĀ  proper judiciary proceedings while protecting the individuals involved from extra-judiciary threats.

With a culture of accountability in place and enough eyes over the police, sites such as Copwatch would be pointless… Everybody wins. Don’t fear the sunshine and let’s talk about solutions !

Streisand Effectpolice accountability