Who Watches the Watchers on Twitter?

Earlier today I tweeted the following message. For the acronym-deficient, ‘OH’ stands for ‘overheard’:

SkyTrain Tweet

A few minutes later, I received this reply from @TransitPolice, run by a sergeant who’s the Media Relations Officer for the Transit Police Service:

Transit Police Replies

Here’s the brief conversation that ensued:

The Whole Conversation

Does this strike anybody else as just a little creepy? I should know better, but I was a little taken aback. It wasn’t my intent to report a potential crime, to “let them know” as Sgt. Seaman put it. I was just recounting a little nugget of an interesting overheard conversation.

And there’s no question as to whether these guys were actually going to vandalize a bunch of cameras. They were, if you’ll forgive the phrase, just shooting the shit. They were really just talking. These were two heavy-set, balding middle-management types who, to look at them, have never dared disturb the universe.

Not Carefully Mitigated Enough

I should know better because I’m voluntarily broadcasting updates to a bunch of people over the web. And I’ve been doing that sort of thing for quite a while. I always tell people, blog (or tweet or whatever) like everyone is listening in.

I’ve been largely comfortable with the carefully mitigated content I push to the web. And yet this little incident gave me pause. The irony is that the Transit Police’s monitoring of Twitter is very like what closed-circuit cameras do. The authorities are using technology to seek out wrong doing. I’ve never been particularly comfortable with CC cameras in public spaces, and so this Twitter monitoring weirds me out a bit, too.

Not to sound all paranoid, but it would be easy enough for the Transit Police to determine roughly where I was when I tweeted that message. Then they could use video from inside the train to identify where I was sitting, and thus identify the two clueless dudes who were talking nearby. I’m pretty sure the Transit Police won’t do that, but I don’t ever want to be complicit in that possibility.

What’s the Lesson?

Take care when publicly publishing any messages that might be of interest to the authorities. Assume that they’re listening.

I don’t write this to demonize law enforcement. I think they have a tough job and, like any other group of people, most of them do it well most of the time. Their failures are necessarily public, and that doesn’t help their reputation.

Still, we live in an increasingly surveilled world. The authorities don’t need my help in watching over us.


  1. Unsettling.

    I wonder, though… any chance that your @TransitPolice Twitter pal wasn’t familiar with the meaning of OT, and was just doing a little tongue-in-cheek poking at what he interpreted as a potential miscreant, caught in planning the act? A little Big Brother reminder of his organization’s existence, at the end of a long dull day at the office?

    I guess there are two things about the exchange (all such exchanges) that I find unsettling: the potential for carrying that surveillance to its logical extreme, as you have outlined; and the potential for misunderstanding each other (creating or exacerbating fear, conflict, hostility, xenophobia, and all those other Pandoran delights) when communication is not only limited to text on screen but limited to 140 characters.

    Either way, it’s a cautionary tale!

    1. Good Day All: This was by no means meant to show how “Big Brother” is watch and listening to you. Tweets are not private, I got an e-mail alerting me to the tweet and responded. Sometimes I search SkyTrain and Transit Police just to see what is being said. I sometimes respond if need be. Its all about reaching out in the new world of social media.


  2. I think the issue here is that it’s @transitpolice listening and not @transitrelations or @transithelp or something. If you’re participating on twitter, it should be because you want to have a conversation, not because you’re snooping for the government.

    1. So what would would you do if you saw a tweet about a violent act that had just taken place, and the author of the tweet may be the one responsible? Report it, ignore it, or forward it? Trust me criminals are using all the same social media vehicles you are..


  3. Did you notice some of the other responses they’ve made? The one where he chastised a guy for dropping pizza on the Skytrain made me rather furious. It’s okay, I already have parents.

      1. Does anyone else think it’s absolutely unacceptable that a member of the transit police just said that I’m “too sensitive” for complaining about their horrendous methods of communication?

  4. @ Travis – and @ everybody for that matter – and that’s the reason why Sgt. Seaman IS participating on Twitter. Because he wants to create conversations with the public. And how I know this? I met him in person and had this very conversation with him when Rebecca Bollwitt and I spoke at the Senior Communicators Roundtable last Tuesday (Nov 24th).

    St. Seaman (@TransitPolice) is still groking Twitter and very much willing to engage in conversations and listen. That’s why he was attending the SCR.

    For once, I’d like to give Translink a “kudos” rather than my usual criticisms (search for Translink on Hummingbird604.com and you’ll find the many ways in which I have criticized them).

    I find that Sgt. Seaman and Jennifer Siddon (@SkytrainLady) are doing a good job, and trying hard to use Twitter to engage with their public. Having their job in a heavily-and-broadly criticized public organization like Translink must not be easy.

    I encourage all of us who are in the field to help them and educate them on how to grok the social media tools. I believe that if we do this, we can avoid exactly what Stephanie just mentioned above (and which is a totally legitimate concern, imagine the PreCrime division – freaky!)

  5. surely a good way to overcome this would be to organise a mass of bogus crime reports.

    You could get hundreds of peeople to RT supposed crimes, they would be on overload.

    Also, I’m pretty sure that interfering with cameras in any way is a crime, even if you look at them funny.

  6. MMMMMM Big Bro, great…. take them on as an Urban Warfare emperiment, EMPLOY jobless people, put on @TransitPolice pay roll to attack using Water based Paints as a training excercise for ALL, jobless get strategy training or did i mean Transitpolice i’m not sure now… confused… you will be when peeps create NEW languages. Mad Out

  7. Darren (and others who have commented),

    Thanks so much for raising this issue. I think the first reaction – “omg, twitter is being watched” – is not what we want to take away from this incident.

    First, this is (a kind of) surveillance. But surveillance of a kind that most human beings are a) used to, and b) can realize is (mostly) helpful. It is human to human surveillance. Or, maybe we should call it “watching,” since it isn’t supervisory or from a position of power.

    I am speaking here of Darren’s initial reporting of what people said on the train. We all do this, all the time. We listen, we watch, and we tell others what we see and hear. Culture is formed on the basis of this mutual knowledge of each other and communication of the results.

    The men spoke in front of him with full knowledge (presumably) that he could hear him and decided at that time that it was OK to speak those words in that situation. The reason they made that decision was reciprocity – they could see him, they could see the situation, and they decided to do what they did knowing that. We all do this when we speak out in public (or even dress in a certain way).

    In a way, Darren’s approval or disapproval (and even his “letting it slide” by not speaking out) is the way that human beings normally govern their behaviour. How many people let racist or sexist remarks go in days gone by? How many wouldn’t let that slide now? This kind of surveillance – mutual, based in community standards, evolutionary – is the kind of thing we can live with (most of the time – don’t get me started on “small town intolerance”).

    Does the twitter overlay change this? Perhaps a little bit, but as Raul points out this is not simply an eye in the sky but a person who is engaged in a dialogue. He is at a distance, to be sure, but he isn’t completely faceless and nameless. And if Translink is smart they will make sure that @TransitPolice stays anchored in a person and a member of the community.

    I think that’s what we want to do with this incident: engage with the @TransitPolice. Keep up a discussion. Find out about them and in so doing help shape their feelings and actions. Don’t let them retreat into anonymity and facelessness.

    Anonymity is the problem with surveillance cameras. Even if the operators WANTED to have an interaction with you, they can’t. There is no reciprocity in the system and it is that way by design. Such systems are inhuman and dehumanizing of both parties: the watchers and the watched. We should restrict them to only where absolutely necessary and where nothing else will work (the Privacy Commissioners have guidelines to this effect, actually).

    So lets not see the Twitter watching as apocalyptic. Let’s instead see it as an opportunity. We have a channel. Let’s open it up and start a discussion. Are @TransitPolice listening?



  8. Thanks to everybody for your comments. A few notes:

    * It was not my primary intent to criticize the Transit Police, but rather to write about my own reaction to discovering that they’re monitoring Twitter.

    * They may very well be doing so as a PR strategy, and that’s to be lauded. Their response to my tweet, though, feels more like I just reported a crime.

    * I feel that Richard goes a little too far when he says of the Transit Police: “Find out about them and in so doing help shape their feelings and actions. Don’t let them retreat into anonymity and facelessness.” They’re public servants–emphasis on the latter word–so I feel the burden lies with them to not retreat into anonymity and facelessness. We shouldn’t have to force that upon them.

    1. Good point, Darren. There is a greater burden on public servants – greater than many of them imagine – to be public.

      Our political landscape is changing and people are less and less willing to be “managed” and more interested in being “represented.”

      Insisting on openness is part of this. So, thanks, for that reminder.

  9. Raul and Richard’s reactions are the voice of reason. Twitter is a public medium, anything you say can be used in evidence for or against you on any position you take.

    This is really no different than a company finding your tweets (whether by following or using twitter search)and proactively sending you an @ reply saying you may be interested in their product etc. You are being watched by all sorts of people and entities.

    If you don’t like it, don’t use twitter or Facebook or any other web entity that isn’t a private, protected group. If you don’t block your tweets then giving up privacy is part of the trade-off bargain you make to use this free service.

  10. What’s unsettling to me about the above exchange is that a simple tweet got manipulated by police into some sort of quazi-formal witness interrogation, a completely different genre of communication than you were setting up/expecting. Sure, you didn’t have to reply to the requests. You could have even blocked the user, who is inserting an unusual and rather asocial/institutional form of communication into what is a highly social/organic medium. Had it been me I might have replied simply with “squares on all sides, eh?”, but then again, perhaps I wouldn’t have done so – it must be intimidating to receive a tweet from “transit police”. They do have guns, after all, and I/we don’t.

    1. Wow, you really think that was my intent. You are watching too much futuristic TV / Movies.. We are simply responsible for the safety and security of the public transit system here, its users and employees, it is a big job. I can just imagine if we failed to detect some major incident where many were hurt. You would all be saying “where were the police, why did they not know, what are they doing. A very tough crowd you are..

  11. I don’t remember who it was (maybe it was me, jeez, maybe it was you on some panel we were on) who suggested that blogging (really, any digital publishing) is like (metaphorically) going to Kinkos and getting 50,000 copies printed and scattering them all over the city.

    You never know who’s going to read it – your mom, your ex, your CRA auditor, or in your case, digitally-enhanced-transit-cops.

    But still – it IS always surprising when your audience isn’t who you’d like to think they are.

    When I was in ‘traditional’ broadcasting (that’s like, radio and TV), and particularly when I was in news, it was always surprising to me when the cops showed up to ask about someone mentioned in a story. Like your tweet, often these were bits of local colour in a story.

    This happened a lot when I worked in Calgary – also an Olympic city- but I think that’s probably just coincidental.

    To be honest, I
    a) figured they had much better things to do than listen to me on the radio
    b) thought all my listeners were kind of like me.

    To give them the benefit of the doubt (and given the current Olympic-heightened-security-freak-out, that’s a bit difficult to do) that means they’re actually doing their job – engaged in the community and interacting with people.

    It’s like walking the Tweet Beat, isn’t it ? Wouldn’t it be ‘normal’ for a beat cop to ask a local merchant the same kind of questions if he/she heard them talking about it outside their store ? But since beat cops are few and far between, we’re left with the digital equivalent.

    I don’t watch TV anymore, but I think on the old cop shows, they use to call it ‘chasing a lead’.

    In any event, it’s just a reminder. There IS someone at the other end of that big glass eye, after all.


    1. Yes Sean, and we take guns, knives and other dangerous weapons away form criminals on transit so you can use it safely. We are there while u sleep trying to make it safe for u and others. Making it safe, what are u doing to help?? Its easy to criticize isn;t it.. but go out and put it on the line.

      Come on I will help you…

  12. Maybe, Sean, we should expect police officers to be a little more respectful of civilians. That’s what we get for hiring burly low-IQ thugs as cops.

    If you recall, the original purpose in 1966 of the Black Panthers was to keep an eye on cops, keep them from violating civil rights, but then the cops kept escalating things until things turned violent.

    Richard Daley was quoted in the newspapers as pointing out that cops were there to stop disorder, they were there to create disorder. A brain fart, but not too far from the truth.

  13. I think our reactions would all be different if @TransitPolice had replied more tactfully, i.e. instead of:

    “Thanks for letting us know, we’ll be watching and waiting, any time line u could let me in on??”

    what if he had written:

    “That’s a bit over the line between legitimate protest and vandalism, don’t you think?”

    If he’s interested in becoming involved and starting a conversation, that would have been a vastly better way of doing it.

  14. Yes, the intent may be pure, but the phrasing is horrible:

    “Thanks for letting us know” – as if you’d reported it directly to the police, rather than as a general casual statement to the public
    “we’ll be watching and waiting” – from the police, that just comes off as creepy and 1984. I already find the cameras and microphones unsettling (and I’m what you’d call a law-abiding citizen and everything!) and this just reinforces that idea.
    “any time line u can let me in on” – implies that they think you know more than you’re letting on.

    It all has a slightly intimidating vibe to it. Like Derek says, if they’d made it more conversational – something like “That’s quite a plan. Did they sound like they were serious?”

    And for that matter – come on, the guy says he’s going to get “1000 guys” together – of COURSE it’s an exaggeration, it’s obvious. So it’s also a little disturbing that the cops appear to be taking it at 100% face value as a serious threat.

    And even the follow-up – does anybody actually LIKE CCTV cameras? The implication is that there’s something suspicious about you if you don’t. Nobody LIKES the feeling that there’s somebody in a hidden room watching you wipe your nose, drop your umbrella, get smacked in the head with somebody else’s backpack when they sit down. It is not a comfort to know a camera is there.

    I appreciate that they’re trying to engage with the public through Twitter, but all this brief exchange has done for me is make me feel like they’re more disconnected and out-of-touch than I actually thought they were.

  15. I have a completely different reaction to this. When it comes to Twitter the Transit Police are in a no win situation. If something serious had been happening, like a passenger being beaten up by another passenger and lots of people were tweeting things like “OMG this guy is getting beat up” and the Transit Police weren’t monitoring Twitter, they would be criticized for not doing everything they could to keep on top of crime on the train. It’s easy to think of other circumstances when people might tweet about something serious, like for example a passenger who was having a heart attack or a seizure. Many people are reluctant to get personally involved in unpleasant things (even a medical emergency, esp if it involves someone who looks kind of scruffy) but some of those people are quite likely to tweet about it. Monitoring Twitter is the best way for the Transit Police to keep up with what is happening on the trains in real time.

    I also don’t find the Transit Police tweets as troubling as everyone else seems to. It’s pretty standard for law enforcement to react to any spoken threat (even an unlikely one) by asking a couple of questions and then (once they have determined it was just talk that’s not going to lead to action) letting the matter drop. That’s exactly what happened here. The Transit Police asked one question that served two purposes. (1) It was intended to deter you if you were the one making the threat by reminding you that the Transit Police were around and keeping an eye out for vandals; and (2) It asked for details. A detailed threat that includes things like time and date is much more likely to be an actual threat rather than someone just griping.

    The Transit Police treated this as exactly what it was, someone griping and making an idle threat. Any threat that involves getting 1000 guys to do something is unlikely to be real but it’s worth asking one question about. After you responded that they guy was just sounding off, the Transit Police didn’t ask you for any further information about how he looked or anything else that could help to identify him. Instead he went fishing for details about any reason the guy had given to explain why he dislikes the cameras. Knowing how the public feels about specific security measures is helpful. Anything that a large number of people dislike or find to intrusive is more like to be vandalized thus making it both a waste of money and ineffective.

    I don’t think it was creepy. The guy had voiced his dislike of the CCTV as a threat rather than just saying he didn’t like them. The follow-up went only as far as needed. In fact, if I used that transit system I think I’d be reassured by the idea that if there were an emergency the Transit Police would find out about it quickly. It’s impossible to watch all those cameras all the time.

  16. Robin, I must disagree. There are any number of ways @TransitPolice could have signalled his notice without sounding intimidating, and several of us have given examples. “We’ll be watching and waiting,” sounds like a threat, and was probably the phrase that creeped Darren out to start with.

    The visual equivalent is the stereotypical double-eye-point “I’m watching you” that gets satirized so much these days:


    Coming from a police officer, there’s unnecessary menace in the statement.

  17. Amazing how so much conversation can come from 140 characters.

    This particular incident seems to walk the very line that Translink’s recent ad campaign was encouraging: “Report the suspicious. Not the strange.”

    This blog post is also a really good bit of instant public consultation on the subject, and I’ve now been informed of the meaning yet another Twitter shorthand, “OH”.

  18. I would like to thank Darren and everyone for their comments. I think it’s a really powerful reminder of the power of Twitter and what important details might be missed because we are trying to express ourselves in so few words. In hindsight, I can see how Darren may have felt like the ‘accused’ being questioned by an officer but I can also see how officers need to ask follow-up questions to assess if there is indeed a risk. As I told Darren, vandalism costs SkyTrain about a half million dollars a year so as a BC Rapid Transit Company employee and a regular SkyTrain passenger I am glad Sgt. Seaman took that tweet seriously. Thanks again everyone. Certainly has me thinking…

  19. I think this thread will help Sgt. Seaman refine his tweets as @TransitPolice. I think Derek’s suggestion is good, that phrasing would have been probably better. But as I said, it’s a learning process.

    I actually agree with Robin – the police here seems to be in a no-win situation. If they don’t monitor the public to protect the public, they’re not doing their job. If they do, they are Big Brother. It’s seriously like “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”.

  20. I agree with Robin as well. Except monitoring Twitter can’t be the best way of watching the trains–that’s not what this officer was doing anyway, he was gathering intel. If Darren had not just said “on the train,” there would be no story. I thought CCTV was for after the fact records, so really the cops have to rely on 911 calls.

    What I can’t fathom is why Darren has offered all government agencies a course on using social media yet.

  21. Well said Robin.

    I am amazed that, on Darren’s blog of all places, an old school profession is being so vilified for trying to engage with new media.

    I’ve seen Darren encouraging and pontificating on new and unique uses of social media for years.

    That those charged with protecting public transport are being attacked for getting in on this is ridiculous.

    That middle aged loser aspiring to vandalize cameras should be grateful that public transport is available to him; running errands on East-Hastings is doubtless easier for him because of it.

    I’m surprised anyone here has anything bad to say about this. It’s certainly fair to be concerned about the Orwellian implications of closed circuit TV, but I imagine those with loved ones (especially children) riding skytrain are glad for any level of security, and it’s nice to know that some officials are working to engage with whatever means are available to them.

    Having said all that, the first four words of Tom’s reply to Donna were just stupid. Engage. Inform. Don’t post personal judgments. If I think Donna is too sensitive I can say that, since I’m not representing anyone but myself. You can’t Tom.

    Good night.

  22. It’s not just public correspondance that’s monitored.

    No privacy “People who have something really private to say probably shouldn’t do it in a text on their cellphone.” Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a public-interest research group in Washington

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