CARACAS, Venezuela — It has taken Venezuela by storm, but it seems that Facebook and other social networking sites also come with their perils.
Police here revealed that a pair of students at a private university in Caracas had been robbing their virtual friends’ homes using information they had compiled using Facebook.
Police raided the apartment of one of two students who, working in tandem with another couple, had been using Facebook to befriend classmates. They then used the information their new “friends” posted on their profiles to find out where they lived, what they owned and when they were not at home.
"They observe the families’ movements, they study the residencies — the comings and goings, the security measures," said Wilmer Flores Trosel, director of the CICPC, Venezuela’s eqivalent of the FBI.
Security analysts in Venezuela say it is becoming increasingly frequent for criminals to use social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Sonico and Hi5 as a source of information for house robberies, fraud and kidnappings.
And it's not just the criminals capitalizing on this online data source, the police too are using it, to go after both hard-core criminals and political protesters. In a country with little tolerance for dissent, many fear the government has designs on controlling these sites. And the crimes aided by Facebook, might give them cause to do just that.
“There's a certain amount of intelligence work involved in kidnapping that Facebook makes easier,” said Roberto Briceno Leon, director of the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence. “Before, what did kidnappers do? They could spend months checking accounts, studying a person's daily movements in order to be able to plan the kidnapping. That implies an investment. Now, Facebook makes that easier.”
Briceno Leon said that even an innocent photograph of a user’s home could reveal valuable information about security systems that could be used to plan robberies or kidnappings.
Leon's Venezuelan Observatory of Violence did a survey and they estimate that there were between 8,000 and 9,000 kidnappings in Venezuela in 2008. The official figure for last year was 554 but most kidnappings go unreported because victims' families prefer not to involve the police as they are often involved in the kidnappings.
Venezuelans are no strangers to crime. Murder rates have reached record highs in recent years and they have been a part of daily life since the late 1980s. Banks take elaborate precautions to avoid fraud. Making a simple withdrawal can involve heavy scrutiny and a customer often has to be photographed and fingerprinted before the money is released.
But Venezuelans are not similarly cautious when it comes to the personal details they publicize on social networks. There are 435,992 users signed up to three "Venezuela" pages on Facebook, and Facebook is used widely in the country for party invitations and political protests.
Briceno Leon said that social networking sites offer the illusion of safety but what may seem like an innocent confession often opens up a window into the private life of an individual.
“People feel intimate and safe, they don't feel like they are on the street,” he said. “That's why people cease to take precautions.”
Facebook is also a tool used by Venezuelan police — though not always effectively. Carlos Graffe, a student from Valencia, a city 75 miles west of Caracas, said the prosecutor’s office put out a warrant for his arrest after he was identified through a photo on Facebook as one of several protesters who are accused of inciting violence during a protest march in Caracas in August.
Graffe and his lawyer claim it’s a case of mistaken identity: The television footage that shows protesters dismantling police barriers during the march shows a different person than the one identified in the Facebook photograph. What’s more, the person in the Facebook photograph is in fact his cousin, also called Carlos Graffe.
Opposition figures claim the Venezuelan government ultimately wants to control social networking sites, which have become an important tool for organizing protests and marches.
Thousands of Venezuelans protested the closing down of local radio station CNB by posting messages on the Twitter account #freemediave. An editorial piece in the state-run Bolivarian News Agency then accused Twitter of becoming a “new channel for creating terror” by spreading disinformation in a campaign orchestrated by the Venezuelan ultra-right.
Government critics claim the government is pushing its own forms of disinformation. In July, Diosdado Cabello, the minister for public works, aired the idea of passing all of Venezuela’s internet traffic through the servers of Cantv, the state-run telecommunications company. Critics say the move would allow the government to control communication on social networking sites during protests.
Social networking sites are a threat to the government that fears that it cannot control the partisanship of sites such as Facebook, said Carlos Delgado, a media analyst at the Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas. He said the government’s move to control Venezuela’s servers is an attempt to “consolidate its communicational hegemony.”