Thinktank suggests police ‘Collect, store and analyse social media data, and develop methods for use by police forces’

Thinktank Demos has suggested in its latest report that the police puts together a centralised hub to ‘collect, store and analyse social media data, and develop methods for use by police forces’.

It was suggested that the social media intelligence or (SOCMINT) hub structures of engagement and funding must be created to involve extra-governmental actors, especially those from industry and academia, where possible.

The report adds: “The Home Office should create a clear, publicly argued framework for the collection and use of SOCMINT, based on the existing Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA). The police will sometimes need to access social media for intelligence work, in a variety of intrusive and non-intrusive ways. But as it stands, the legal basis for SOCMINT is not clear. The collection and use of intelligence from social media must be placed on a firm regulatory basis.”

The study suggests four types of SOCMINT, the first of which being open source: intelligence collected from open, publicly available sources where no private information is collected about an individual, (unless the user would have no expectation of privacy), and the methods of collection do not involve deception or interception.

The second category, directed surveillance SOCMINT, will see authorisation be required to gather private information about a person is taken from a public domain where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy. This step would see a detailed profile of the interests, views, and behaviour of a single named individual being built from openly available sources.

Covert human intelligence sources SOCMINT, the third category, will see police a relationship with a person for the covert purpose of obtaining information about them, including creation of fake social media accounts to join closed groups or chat rooms.

The fourth and final category, Intercept or intrusive covert surveillance SOCMINT, will require a warrant from the Secretary of State; and would include accessing direct messages on social media, as well as use of a crawler, spider, scraper, or another automated system to breach a robot.txt restriction in order to access data from a server without the permission of that server.

The report does warn: “However, digital freedom and liberty are increasingly important for citizens, and some aspects of policing work are not amenable to the norms and mores of social media. We therefore recommend that the police proceed with care.

“They should not underestimate the potentially transformative power of social media to their work, nor underestimate the legitimate concerns citizens have about misuse.

“Public attitudes towards data sovereignty and privacy (even on open platforms) change quickly, and there is a reputational risk if law enforcement agencies are seen to be ‘snooping’ online.”

The Demos report hails the success of social media use by the police during the 2011 riots, where police uploaded photos to a Flickr Stream and a dedicated website that compiled images of people thought to be involved in looting, leading to over 700 arrests, and 167 people being charged.

Greater Manchester Police used Twitter to name and shame those convicted of the riots in August 2011.

Demos suggested that each constabulary should have a single dedicated, operational lead for social media to integrate the various applications.

Ishbel Macleod

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