Can crowdsourcing be used as a tool for evil?

May 9th, 2012 by

microtask_evil_crowdsourcingA recent interview on Daily Crowdsource with Manuel Cebrian (you might remember him from such groundbreaking crowdsourcing projects as 2009’s DARPA Red Balloon Challenge and last month’s Tag Challenge) about crowdsourcing and crime got me thinking.

It occurred to me that the Joker from The Dark Knight may be the first ever super-villain to use crowdsourcing for his own nefarious (probably my favorite “evil-doer adjective”) means. I’m talking about when the Joker interrupts regularly-scheduled programming to announce his intent to blow up a hospital unless somebody kills the guy who knows Batman’s identity.

When I first saw this, I remember thinking: this is clever. The Joker’s ultimatum was not your typical ransom note or threat; something covert sent to the family of a rich kidnapping victim, or phoned into a school. In actuality, it was a perverse form of crowdsourcing: “I’m appealing to the community to do something terrible on my behalf, or I’m going to kill people.” By tapping into the mainstream media, he reached “tipping point” in a matter of seconds, and his “call to action” was immediately heeded.

It led me to think about how social media could be exploited by criminals. I came up with two scenarios (super-villains get your pad and pencils ready):

The Crowdsourcing Terrorist
What if a status update popped up on the home page of every Facebook or Twitter saying if they want to save the Eiffel Tower, they must visit such and such website (I’ll provide details of this site and bank numbers at a later date) and click the “donate $5” button. If the target figure of $5 million is not reached in 12 hours, the Eiffel Tower will be blown up. Essentially what I’m talking about is a cross between crowdfunding site Kickstarter and those absurd guilt-trip chain emails saying kids will die if you don’t forward the message.

Like the Joker, in my example, the criminal puts the onus on the community to meet his demands – or at the very least places a psychological burden on everyone who reads his message – gaining critical mass via social media. While I’m no expert cyber-fraudster (my bank balance can conclusively prove this), I’m guessing that police would have trouble tracing the villain’s identity or bank details in 12 hours.

The Crowdsourcing Thug
This idea evolved from the “flash rob crimes” that hit Chicago last year, in which groups of thieves, coordinating via Twitter, contrived to show up at a certain store at a certain time to rob the place. A few of them were caught, but most got away (if you’re a store owner, what are you going to do when 30 people proceed to simultaneously overpower you, rob you, and then run away in 30 different directions?)

I could see a criminal mastermind (one who’s fond of wearing a Zoot suit and a monocle, and stroking a pink ferret) logging onto Facebook/Twitter and offering to buy the spoils from anyone willing to rob “jewelry store x”. Unlike the “Eiffel Tower” plot, the announcement wouldn’t be made to the general public. 50 thugs could organize and decide to hit the store at the same time. Of the group, 10 are waiting outside in getaway cars, promised a cut of the loot and another 10 have signed up as lookouts. As with the flash rob crimes, the police will nab a few, but it’s likely that most of the group will get away with some loot.

In the interview, Cebrian says that like other high-profile technologies such as nuclear power and genetic engineering, it’s only a matter of time before crowdsourcing experiences a negative event. I completely agree, and am somewhat curious to see what form it takes (bwhahaha!).

More importantly, I hope law enforcement agencies worldwide are considering the negative potential of crowdsourcing, and drawing up contingencies to address it. These should include preventative measures, designed to catch these super-villains before they hurt someone and damage the reputation of our industry.

  • Seth W

    Fascinating line of thought you explore here… Joker succeeded through a good mix of ethos and medium. I’m not sure a Facebook thug or Twitter mastermind has the same pull, but it’s worth considering. I think I’ll write my own post about this!

  • Tommaso De Benetti

     We can agree that few people have the pull of Joker ;)