Tunisia, Facebook, Privacy, and Freedom

Most youth workers have developed a Facebook apologetic. That is to say, they know how to respond and argue for Facebook usage to engage with and interact with their students.

One component of Facebook, which causes heart palpitations for adults, is that it is a place of dissidence and venting. And the motivating reason that adults see their blood pressure elevated about these activities is that they are either the object of said dissidence/venting or they are asked to clean up the mess created online.

As a result, some parents and other caring adults use that as a case for Facebook being banned. (Which, as human nature dictates, just means adolescents find another place to carry out dissidence and venting. It is just taken off of the adult radar and disappears into adolescent-world. But you can safely imagine a William Wallace-like response, “You can take our Facebook, but you can never have our phones!“)

Allow me to introduce to you a story from The Atlantic, which puts this into context:

Expert analysts of the country couldn’t tell if Ben Ali would remain in power for a few more weeks or a decade. It did not feel inevitable that Ben Ali would be deposed. People had protested in the streets before. Revolution had been in the air. It wasn’t clear that this time would be different.

There has been a lot of debate about whether Twitter helped unleash the massive changes that led Ben Ali to leave office on January 14, but Facebook appears to have played a more important role in spreading dissent.

Imagine you are Ben Ali. You are the unpopular leader of Tunisia. You are an oppressor of freedoms. And you hear rumors that you may be deposed of your power.

In youth ministry language– the youth pastor hears that his students are bad mouthing him on Facebook. And they’ve engaged with enough adults in the church that you might get fired.

So what does Ben Ali do? He had long ago banned YouTube and other video sharing sites… but all of a sudden he discovers that hundreds of thousands of Tunisians are flocking to Facebook, networking, and sharing videos which document the terrors of his rule.

While clashes with security forces took place in the streets, Rim, who asked we not use her last name, was in her bed in her apartment in Tunis. Like the blogger cliché, Rim sat in her pajamas sharing videos. In her hands, small protests that reached 50 people could suddenly reach another 50, who would share it with another 50. The idea that it might be time for the regime to change spread from city to city faster than street protests and even middle class places got involved.

“There were rumors that Facebook or electricity was going to be shut down,” Rim IM’d me from Tunis. “Or both.”

Did you get that? It was either shut down the electricity or shut down Facebook. But Ben Ali’s plan was more devious.

After more than ten days of intensive investigation and study, Facebook’s security team realized something very, very bad was going on. The country’s Internet service providers were running a malicious piece of code that was recording users’ login information when they went to sites like Facebook.

By January 5, it was clear that an entire country’s worth of passwords were in the process of being stolen right in the midst of the greatest political upheaval in two decades. Sullivan and his team decided they needed a country-level solution — and fast.

Instead of just shutting down Facebook, Ben Ali had ordered that the very tool being used to create dissidence be used as a tool of the government to capture personal information.

Facebook, the company with access to 800 million users personal information, had to make a moral decision. Was it going to get involved in support of a dictators withholding the reigns of power from the people of Tunisia by doing nothing? Or was it going to spur on political revolution by protecting their core values?

They chose the latter. And, as we know now, their was a change in leadership in Tunisia.

At Facebook, Sullivan’s team decided to take an apolitical approach to the problem. This was simply a hack that required a technical response. “At its core, from our standpoint, it’s a security issue around passwords and making sure that we protect the integrity of passwords and accounts,” he said. “It was very much a black and white security issue and less of a political issue.”

The software was basically a country-level keystroke logger, with the passwords presumably being fed from the ISPs to the Ben Ali regime. As a user, you just logged into some part of the cloud, Facebook or your email, say, and it snatched up that information. If you stayed persistently logged in, you were safe. It was those who logged out and came back that were open to the attack.

Read the rest at The Atlantic

What does this have to do with youth ministry?

I don’t know. Nothing and everything at the same time.

I think a lot of adults feel teenage angst more than teenagers do. Deep down we believe that it is our role to save teenagers from themselves by putting up boundaries and barriers. At the same time we acknowledge that they carry the hope of the world forward in living out the Gospel in ways and to levels that our generation has failed.

Instead of focusing our attention on somehow asking our students to be saved from the world, perhaps we need to focus on teaching them how to take over the world and lead it in a way which acts on their Jesus-influenced convictions?



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