Making a # out of intelligence

Arguments between advocates of social media regulation and open rights campaigners lack adequate legal or ethical foundations, writes Demos’s Carl Miller.

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Carl Miller is an Associate of Demos

Last month, details of the Communications Capabilities Development Programme, the government’s plans to legislate for surveillance on the internet, were leaked – plans confirmed in the Draft Communications Bill outlined in the Queen’s Speech yesterday.

Home-Office-screengrabSince then, the forces of privacy – campaigners, digitariat aristocracy and the ‘fathers of the net’ – have been massing on one side, Home Office ‘securocrats’ on the other.

In this latest skirmish of what the Guardian has dubbed the ‘battle for the Internet’, perhaps one of the first casualties is what we need the most: reasonable debate.

Demos recently launched #Intelligence, the first blueprint for the ethical and effective collection of SOCMINT, or social media intelligence. Co-written by former GCHQ director and Home Office permanent secretary Sir David Omand with myself and Jamie Bartlett of Demos, it argues government faces a difficult dilemma.

On one hand, the explosion in the use of social media has created new digital social commons that represent increasingly significant public spaces. The generation of SOCMINT could pay decisive dividends to public security and safety, giving public agencies everything from early warning of public disorder to a better understanding of emerging public concerns.

On the other, efforts to maintain security must be based on public acceptance and support. Like any other form of intelligence, ground rules for the collection and use of SOCMINT must rest on the solid bedrock of democratic legitimacy – a legal basis, a political explanation, parliamentary approval and involvement, adequate oversight, and an informed public.


See also:

Freedom of speech and the freedom to tweet 18 Apr 2012

Ashdown turns up the heat on Clegg to abandon state snooping plans 12 Apr 2012

Extension of state snooping cannot be allowed to happen on the Lib Dems’ watch 4 Apr 2012


The outrage surrounding the CCDP testifies to the importance of a principled, publicly argued grounding for SOCMINT – yet the law governing the intrusive collection of intelligence, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA), is 12 years old.

Drafted before social media was a gleam in Tom Anderson’s eye, it is wholly insufficient as a guarantee that government SOCMINT collection would be based on respect for human rights and the associated principles of accountability, proportionality and necessity.

This vacuum needs to be filled.

#Intelligence recommends an explicitly articulated ‘two route approach’ to the government use of SOCMINT for the purpose of security. If the SOCMINT collection is consensual, or if the information is accessible to anyone, anonymous, and if there is no suspicion or assumption of wrongdoing, then government should be able to collect SOCMINT like companies or universities.

Vital to this kind of ‘open SOCMINT’ is that people’s data is protected, and that it is as transparent as possible.

When the government begins to exercise state-specific powers to break through people’s privacy settings during the course of an investigation, it must fall within a framework animated by six principles:

1) There must be sufficient, sustainable cause;

2) There must be integrity of motive;

3) The methods used must be proportionate and

4) There must be right authority, validated by external

5) Recourse to secret intelligence must be a last resort if
more open sources can be used
; and

6) There must be a reasonable prospect of success.

Full details of the CCDP were, as expected, announced during yesterday’s Queen’s Speech in May. Let us hope that by now it is recognised that privacy and security are not mortal enemies, merely two of a number of public goods that can, and should, be balanced against each other.


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