Meet PRISM’s little brother: #SOCMINT

A secretive unit is developing tools for blanket surveillance of social media.

from For the past two years, a tight-lipped and little talked about
unit within the Metropolitan Police has been conducting blanket
surveillance of British citizens’ public social media conversations.
an unintentional leak and a detailed investigation, we are finally able
to see some of the capabilities of this 17-man team—some of which are
truly alarming.

The PRISM scandal
engulfing US and UK intelligence agencies has blown the debate wide
open over what privacy means in the digital age and whether the Internet
risks becoming a kind of Stasi 2.0
. The extent of the UK’s involvement
in this type of mass surveillance—which already appears exhaustive—shows
just what a potential intelligence goldmine social media data can be.

But the monitoring of our online trail goes beyond the eavesdroppers in GCHQ.

For the past two years, a secretive unit in the Metropolitan Police
has been developing the tools for blanket surveillance of the public’s
social media conversations. Operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week,
a staff of 17 officers in the National Domestic Extremism Unit (NDEU)
has been scanning the public’s tweets, YouTube videos, Facebook
profiles, and anything else UK citizens post in the public online

The intelligence-gathering technique—sometimes known as Social Media
Intelligence (Socmint)
—has been used in conjunction with an alarming
array of sophisticated analytical tools.

“Sentiment analysis” that can determine your mood, “horizon scanning”
that tries to pre-empt disorder and crime, facial recognition software
that can track down individuals, geo-location that is able to pinpoint
your whereabouts, and profiling that can map who you are and what
circles you move in. All innovative techniques used in the private
sector, and all adapted for law enforcement and surveillance.

UK police unit monitors 9,000 ‘domestic extremists’

As the head of opensource intelligence in the Met, Umut
Ertogral, revealed in May during what he intended to be a private
presentation at an
Australian security conference
 [according to a couple of
Met sources, conference organisers ‘forgot’ to tell the audience
that the talk was off the record]:

“[Social media] almost acts like CCTV on the ground for us. Just
like the private sector use it for marketing and branding, we’ve
developed something to listen in and see what the public are

Surveillance operations often require a ministerial
sign-off or permission from a superior but it is unclear whether
targeting of public social media data requires the same level of

The unit has been building and honing this new style of
surveillance ever since the 2011 London

While the NSA’s Prism programme collects data that is supposed
to be hidden from the outside world, this form of opensource
intelligence eavesdrops on the data you haven’t made private — be
it intentional or through ignorance.

But several privacy groups and think tanks — including Big
Brother Watch, Demos and Privacy International — have voiced
concerns that the Met’s use of Socmint lacks the proper legislative
oversight to prevent abuses occurring.

“The issue of legal protection and privacy sits at the heart of
all this,” explains Carl Miller, Research Director and co-founder
of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media which has been
leading the research into Socmint.

“What we really need is a clear and enabling framework, both
legislation and regulation, which can explicitly inform people when
and why the police can collect this kind of information.”

Current legislation intended to protect the public from abuses,
like the
Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act
(Ripa), were passed at a
time when Facebook and Twitter didn’t exist.  

Surveillance operations often require a ministerial sign-off or
permission from a superior but it is unclear whether targeting of
public social media data requires the same level of oversight, as
head of research at Privacy International Eric King point outs.

“Millions of British citizens share billions of pieces of
information about their lives with social networking sites every
he explains.

“While Ripa authorisations are required for most methods of
offline surveillance the police are refusing to come clean about
what checks and safeguards — if any — are in place to ensure that
surveillance of online activities stays lawful and

 “We are all very aware that our accounts are being
We’ve moved our social network activity to make it more
private and we’ve moved away from 
traditional social sites for our
online meetings and discussions.” 

Mac, Legal observer for the Occupy LSX

Challenged with these concerns, the Met still refused to go into
detail about the unit but told its use of Socmint was
necessary “to protect communities”.

“Police have a duty to uphold the law and prevent and detect
crime,” said a spokesperson from the Specialist Crime and
Operations Desk.

“Online channels will attract those intent on committing crime,
engaged in gang activity or communicating with rival gangs to fuel
tension and threaten violence.”

The Met also argued its intelligence was “publicly available
material which is readily accessible to all using the

But some are not so convinced this private/public dividing line
is quite so clear cut.

Dr Daniel Trottier, a researcher in Social and Digital Media at
Westminster University, argues the sophistication of the tools able
to analyse this data means we should see our public social media
output in a different light.

“The perception with this kind of intelligence is that it’s in
the public domain so it’s no different from, say, searching through
newspaper articles,” he elaborates.

“But this analysis shows a lack of familiarity with the
technology involved and the extent to which it can identify and
analyse people.

“There’s a psychologist in Cambridge, for example, who showed
how with just a few statements from social media profiles one is
able to reasonably determine a user’s sexual orientation.

“Now, whether or not these kinds of predictions are accurate is
beside the point — it’s the fact that the predictions are taking
place at all and are taken seriously that’s important.

“If your online conversations flag you up as a potentially
troublesome individual, regardless of whether you are or not, you
will still end up being blackballed as such.”

Some say they have had first-hand experience of this kind of
targeted profiling and it has pushed them to go off the grid almost

“It’s got to the stage where I will only use a public telephone
or meet someone face to face if I want to discuss something
sensitive,” explains Janie Mac, a legal observer for the Occupy LSX

“We are all very aware that our accounts are being monitored.
We’ve moved our social network activity to make it more private and
we’ve moved away from traditional social sites for our online
meetings and discussions.”

It is suspected protesters and political activists are bearing
the brunt of the Met’s Socmint surveillance programme.

On 26 June the Guardian
that the very same unit had a “secret database” that
had labelled some 9,000 individuals — many from political groups
— as “domestic extremists”.

It adds to the growing number of questionable surveillance
tactics used by the police. What is particularly troublesome is
that these abuses occurred even with the apparent existence of
proper legislation and oversight — something the snooping of
social media data currently does not have. 

“With anything to do with surveillance we must look at whether
it is necessary, proportionate and in the public interest,”
concludes Emma Carr, Deputy Director of Big Brother Watch.

“In some cases it certainly will be but there has to be a clear
framework that’s unambiguous and consistently applied.

“Only then can the public start to feel comfortable that it’s
being used proportionately and in their interest.”

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