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The government should draw up a framework outlining how the police and security services could covertly intrude on criminals or terror groups using social media networks, but without compromising the freedom of the internet, according to a leading figure in UK defence and security policy.
The police and intelligence services are grappling with huge changes in the way criminals and terrorists communicate over the internet.
In response, argues Sir David Omand, former head of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), they must increasingly consider how intelligence can be gathered covertly from social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn.
Sir David’s intervention, in a paper he co-authored for think tank Demos, come as the government is facing a wave of controversy over legislation that would force internet service providers and phone companies to surrender records
, enabling police and intelligence services to monitor the time, date and recipient of messages.
Private companies are already monitoring social media sites for open-source information that can indicate new trends in behaviour. However, Sir David believes the government should publish a green paper spelling out how the security services can covertly identify criminals or terror groups using such sites without compromising free access to the internet.
The security threat posed by people using social media was highlighted last August when participants in the UK riots used the BlackBerry Messenger service to co-ordinate attacks. In the aftermath the police admitted they had been slow to gather intelligence via social media.
Sir David also notes how networks have been set up on Facebook to co-ordinate contract killings, boast about serious animal abuse, conduct cyber-stalking, plan sexual assaults and breach court orders.
Sir David says the government could use existing powers under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 to intrude into private messages passed through social media networks. The act is already used to intercept communications over the phone and internet.
However, the paper argues that intrusion into social media presents a range of challenges. “Unlike other forms of intrusive investigation, there may be no named suspect or telephone number to target and the output might be general rather than specific to an individual,” it says.
The paper also says that any covert intrusion into social media sites would find it hard to fix at the outset how much data might be acquired as a result. Using automated techniques, an initial intrusion might start out monitoring a few hundred data exchanges, but this could quickly rise to millions.