On Tuesday the Ukrainian government sent the following text message to thousands of protesters in the streets of Kiev: “Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance.” This short text belied a far more radical message. For the first time, a government was able to identify individual protesters and privately communicate to them that it knew who they were and where they were located.
The implications of this are potentially huge. In theory, there are at least two possible effects such monitoring could have. The first is that it could convince individuals that it is too costly to continue to protest — if the government can monitor all movement, then capturing and convicting individual protesters becomes much easier. This information could also make it more difficult for citizens to initiate a protest if they must leave their cell phones at home to avoid detection. The result would be fewer protests and smaller, less dynamic movements.
But government tracking could also have the opposite effect. Think of it this way. If you are a protester in the streets of Kiev and you receive a text message from the Ukrainian government telling you that you have been identified as a protester, what benefit do you get from going home? None, since you have already been implicated in the movement. The best strategy at that point would be to continue to fight with the aim of emerging victorious.
This appears to be what’s happening in Ukraine. Clearly, the Ukrainian government sent the text message believing it would scare people back into their homes and deter others from joining. But this didn’t happen. Instead, protesters are digging in their heels and fighting harder. Their main demand: the resignation of the current government.
How can we expect this technology to affect protests more generally, especially protests that have not yet broken out? Here I think the implications are pretty straightforward. Potential protesters will likely leave their cell phones at home before they hit the streets. They will still be able to communicate with each other from their homes in order to coordinate activity. But the real-time tweets and photos and videos that protesters have been willing to send from the streets to the rest of the world will stop. GPS has made carrying a cell phone too risky … at least until protesters can figure out a way to guarantee that the government can no longer track them.