Out-Law / Your Daily Need-To-Know

Social media information helped prevent some riot damage, police say

Out-Law News | 17 Aug 2011 | 3:01 pm | 3 min. read

Police gathered intelligence from social media to pre-empt riots at some locations in London, the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) has said.

Shopping hubs and Olympics venues were among the sites police protected, the MPS said. London and other English cities witnessed scenes of violence and disorder last week after a police officer shot dead Londoner Mark Duggan.

Rioters are thought to have used social media communications to coordinate activities including vandalising property, looting and fire-raising.

"Throughout the disorder the MPS was monitoring a range of social media," a statement sent to OUT-LAW by the MPS said.

"On open source social media there was some 'chatter' about targeting Oxford Street, the two Westfield Centres and the Olympics site. As a result police ensured appropriate resources were in place and prevented any significant issues arising. In addition to the open source monitoring, mobile phones and smart phones of those arrested for the disorder were seized and analysed as part of the crime investigations. Any useful information gained was acted upon," the statement said.

The statement was issued following comments by senior MPS officials in Parliament on Tuesday. Assistant Chief Commissioner of the MPS, Lynne Owens, told MPs that police had found intelligence on Twitter and Blackberry Messenger (BBM).

"Through Twitter and BBM there was intelligence that the Olympic site, that both Westfields and Oxford Street were indeed going to be targeted," Owens told the Home Affairs Select Committee, according to a report by the BBC.

"We were able to secure all those places and indeed there was no damage at any of them," Owens said.

BBM is a free service that allows users to send private messages to one another. Blackberry manufacturer, Research In Motion (RIM), has commented that it is complying with its duties under The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA).

Under the provisions of RIPA law enforcement agencies, including the police and MI5, can force telecoms companies to hand over customers' details in order to tap phone, internet or email communications to protect the UK's national security interests, prevent and detect terrorism and serious crime or to safeguard the UK's economic well-being.

Telecoms companies have a duty under RIPA to hand over communications data it has or could obtain about customers when asked to do so by police unless "it is not reasonably practicable" to do so. The Home Secretary can ask the courts to issue an injunction "or any other appropriate relief" against telecoms firms that fail to comply with their duty under RIPA. The type of injunction that courts can issue is not defined by RIPA.

An exception within the UK's data protection laws also allows police to force organisations to hand over personal data belonging to customers if it is for the purposes of preventing or detecting crime. The laws also prevent organisations telling individuals that they have handed over their personal data if telling them would jeopordise the prevention or detection of crime.

The Data Protection Act states that in most circumstances it is unlawful for organisations to process personal data without people's consent. It is also unlawful to process the data without having legitimate grounds for collecting and using it and using it in a way that will adversely affect individuals.

The MPS has not confirmed whether it has been intercepting communications or whether it is processing information after it has been sent.

Data protection law expert Kathryn Wynn from Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW, said last week that RIM and other telecoms companies will face the problem of identifying riot suspects without invading the privacy of innocent individuals.

"Social media providers could be put in a Catch 22 situation unless there is suitable technology to help them identify suspected rioters," Wynn said.

"The companies cannot suspend users from a service unless they know specific identifying information about them, but equally they cannot identify users without looking through communications to identify those inciting public disorder. It seems unlikely that there is a technological system in place for being able to identify suspects without infringing the privacy of innocent people by conducting what could, depending on the specific circumstances, be viewed as a disproportionate and unreasonable search through high volumes of messages in order to find suspects and stop them communicating," Wynn said

The MPS said that it considered asking for the publics' access to social media to be shut off during the riots but that there were no powers to do so.

"The MPS did consider whether social media sites could be closed during the disorder but police do not have the facilities or the legislation to enable this," the MPS statement said.

"At present the MPS is not asking the government for new powers to achieve this," the statement said.

Acting MPS Commissioner Tim Godwin said that social media was a "very useful intelligence asset" and that the "legality" of switching it off was "very questionable".

"As a result of that, we did not request that that was turned off, but it is something that we are pursuing as part of our investigative strategy," Godwin told the Home Affairs Select Committee, according to the BBC.

Technology law news is also available from Bootlaw, a free resource for technology start-ups, with regular events hosted by Pinsent Masons.