Former GCHQ head calls for greater surveillance of Facebook and Twitter | Apr 24, 2012

by Terri Judd

The former head of GCHQ Sir David Omand called for greater surveillance of Facebook and Twitter today, reigniting the debate on how much the state should be allowed to snoop on individuals.

Launching what he described as the first serious study into how the police and security services can use social media as a form of intelligence, Sir David said it was time they catch up with the explosion in the medium and develop expertise in understanding its particular language and culture.

The #Intelligence report, produced by the influential think tank Demos, comes just weeks after the government was forced to retreat on plans for legislation to allow the police and intelligence services to monitor the online activity of every person in Britain after cross-party uproar.

Yesterday Nick Pickles, Director of the civil liberties group Big Brother Watch said “It is perfectly legitimate for the authorities to be able to use new technology to monitor a suspect, but the Home Office’s plans involve indiscriminate surveillance of every person using the internet and no amount of legal tinkering will make that any more acceptable.”

Track criminals via social media, says ex-GCHQ head

“The (Demos) report is absolutely right to say that we need a far more open discussion about what data should be monitored and the legal framework underpinning the collection of data,” he added.

Acknowledging that there were major concerns about a “digital big brother”, Sir David said there nevertheless needed to be monitoring of a medium that was increasingly used by criminals and terrorists: “We need to start by having a public debate then to establish a set of principles by which such activity can be regulated.”

In particular, he said, the police were found wanting during last summer’s riots: “They didn’t have the capacity to look at these social media sites and, when they did look, they were swamped.”

In a series of recommendations to the government, Sir David – the Cabinet Office’s former Security and Intelligence co-ordinator – said out-dated legislation needed to be reformed to ensure an ethical and legal framework for such intelligence gathering, which was clear and transparent.

The report recommends that social media should be divided into two categories, the first being open source information which public bodies could monitor to improve services while not identifying individuals without permission.

On the more contentious category of monitoring private social media, Sir David said it needed to be properly authorised – including the need for warrants when it was considered “genuine intrusion” –  only used as a last resort when there was substantial cause and with regard to “collateral damage” to any innocent people who might have been in contact with a suspect.

Calling for greater clarity from the government on how it intends to proceed, the report’s recommendations include an inter-departmental review of legislation, including the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, as well as a single centre of excellence across the police adept at analysing information.

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