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Demos publishes ‘blueprint’ for social media intelligence monitoring

Think tank lays down six ethical principles for UK security authorities

The ethical principles upon which the British security authorities should be allowed to monitor social media are laid out in a report published recently by the think tank Demos.

In the year of the Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics, #Intelligence argues that social media intelligence – ‘SOCMINT’ – could play a key role in keeping the public safe and should become an important part of intelligence and policing work.

The authors explain that the explosion in the use of social media provides an opportunity to generate intelligence that could help identify criminal activity, indicate early warning of outbreaks of disorder, provide information and intelligence about groups and individuals, or help understand and respond to public concerns. 

#Intelligence presents a new framework based on six principles for how social media can be collected and used in a way that is both effective and ethical: serving the public while respecting the right to privacy and the need the keep the internet as a free and open space. 

It puts forward a dual-route approach, which distinguishes between: 

‘Open-source, non-intrusive SOCMINT’ which would not be used to identify individuals or as a means of criminal investigation and should not puncture the privacy wishes of any user. It can be conducted on a similar basis to non-state actors, such as universities and commercial companies. This might include such activity as openly crowd sourcing information through Twitter or Facebook to gain situational awareness in the event of public disorder or gauging general levels of community tension.

‘Intrusive or surveillance SOCMINT’ which is the exercise of state-specific powers of access intended to result in the identification of individuals and access to private information. This could range from collecting publicly available data about specific individuals to intercepting and reading personal communications.  This access needs to be governed by an ethical and legal framework, which maintains an association between harm, privacy, authorisation, agency and cause, such as limits on the number of agencies permitted to undertake it depending on the degree of intrusion.

The paper also recommends:

That all social media intelligence gathering by the state should be based on the following six ethical principles: 

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

The Government should undertake an interdepartmental review of current legislation – notably RIPA 2000 – and existing systems of oversight to determine what applies to SOCMINT now. An interdepartmental review must consider what types of SOCMINT might fall under RIPA 2000 parts 1 and 2, and the relevant degrees and type of authorisation required. Existing mechanisms of oversight for all intelligence and policing work, including the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee and the independent police commissioners, need to determine how SOCMINT should relate to their current procedures and operations.

The Government should publish a green paper subject to public consultation about how it plans to use and manage SOCMINT in the public interest, including for the purposes of public security. This must include a position on how to define and measure the possible harm entailed by SOCMINT access, and how it can therefore be balanced against other public goods. This requires the provision of information about the circumstances legitimising the use of SOCMINT, the bodies capable of conducting it, the system of authorisation and oversight that will exist, and how abuses to this system will be prevented and redressed.

Government should establish an independent expert scientific and industrial advisory panel and a SOCMINT centre of excellence. A single, networked hub of excellence should coordinate SOCMINT development across different branches of government, and structures of engagement and funding must be created to involve extra-governmental actors, especially industrial and academic actors, in the process. Strengthening SOCMINT capability also includes the creation of a ‘SOCMINT culture’, where SOCMINT practitioners and users understand the cultural, linguistic and technological underpinnings of the platform.

Sir David Omand said:

“It is imperative that the fast-growing use of social media can contribute to our safety and security as well as our economic and social welfare. I believe that this can be achieved in a way that is consistent with our essential liberties, freedom of speech and rights to privacy in accordance with straightforward ethical principles.”

Jamie Bartlett, Head of the Violence and Extremism Programme at Demos said:

“Government must strike a balance between privacy and security. This paper is a blueprint for how that can be achieved.

“As society develops new ways to communicate and organise, public bodies including law enforcement and the intelligence community must keep up. But security work rests on public acceptability and understanding. Social media presents challenges to the current operational and legal frameworks that ensure the measures to keep us safe are proportionate, accountable and effective.”

Notes to Editors:

#Intelligence by Sir David Omand, Jamie Bartlett and Carl Miller is published by Demos on Tuesday 24 April 2012.  It can be downloaded for free from

Sir David Omand is a Visiting Professor in the War Studies Department of King's College London. Jamie Bartlett is head of the Violence and Extremism Programme at Demos.  Carl Miller is an Associate at Demos.

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