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Between Public Safety and Private Freedom

Given the current debates about online privacy versus security and social media versus freedom of information, it is not surprising that MBF blogs should have carried a number of blogs in recent months about these divisive issues.

They do not go away. Indeed, a report from power and politics think-tank, Demos, has reignited the discussions afresh. A paper, available free of charge from the thinkers of social issues, is written by Jamie Bartlett, Carl Miller and Sir David Omand, a former director of GCHQ and it argues that social media now presents a real dilemma for the law enforcement/security agencies.

A New Discussion Paper

Demos have coined another term for it: SOCMINT. ‘On the one hand, social media could provide a new form of intelligence – SOCMINT – that could contribute decisively to keeping the public safe. On the other, national security is dependent on public understanding and support for the measures being taken to keep us safe’.

Early warnings from monitoring social media of criminal and/or terrorist activity are essential in the never-ending fight against illegal activities. The riots in major cities in the summer of 2011 demonstrated that horribly well.

They acknowledge that social media by its very nature challenges current conceptions about privacy, consent and personal data. It raises questions of ethical, legal and operational challenges as yet unanswered. They point out that new forms of technology ‘allow far more invisible and widespread intrusive surveillance’ than ever.

There is a legal framework and understanding in the UK that guarantees the gathering of data for intelligence purposes is ‘proportionate, necessary and accountable’. The paper argues that social media should be accepted as a permanent part of the national intelligence framework ‘but that it must be based on a publicly argued, legal footing, with clarity and transparency over use, storage, purpose, regulation and accountability’.

Democratic legitimacy requires that sound legal footing, never mind the details of how it can work in the rapidly changing future. A telling phrase from the report is: ‘the boundaries between the public digital space and the private digital space should be clarified’. That is at the heart of their recommendations.

The Principles

They outline six bedrock principles which they believe should underpin use by the state of any SOCMINT:

  1. there must be sufficient sustainable cause
  2. there must be integrity of motive
  3. the methods used must be proportionate and necessary
  4. there must be right authority, validated by external oversight
  5. recourse to secret intelligence must be a last resort if more open sources can be used
  6. there must be reasonable prospect of success

They then argue that government should take a two route approach, distinguishing between open source non-intrusive SOCMINT and intrusive/surveillance SOCMINT.

Route one should be bound with conditions on anonymity, data protection and full consent of providers of data. It should include Facebook and the like, but with user consent.

Route two is ‘the exercise of state-specific powers of access intended to result in the identification of individuals and access to private information. This is SOCMINT as intrusive surveillance and interception’. In this scenario, accessing social media could range from relatively minor intrusions (such as collecting publicly available data about specific individuals) to more significant intrusions, such as intercepting and reading personal communications.

Does all that sound reasonable and mainly unarguable? In practice, of course, the detail of legislation is what frustrates the best intentions. And the law will support the status quo of authority for the maintenance of continuing order. The individual’s private freedom has to be sacrificed, at least to some extent, to achieve that.


Demos, Intelligence

Get up to speed on MBF articles on this issue:

Personal Data: Government Plans a Rich Harvest

Cars Are No Longer Last Private Places

Good at Codes? Want a Job? Try GCHQ

Cyber-Crime High on People’s Fear Lists

Do Businesses Need Social Media?

Just How Valuable Is Your Web Data?