Facebook attacks UK govt Web-monitoring plans

Chief privacy officer Chris Kelly says government proposals to track all social-networking traffic data would be unnecessary, impractical and possibly bad for business.
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

Social-networking site Facebook has criticized government suggestions that intelligence services should monitor the Web communications of all U.K. citizens.

Facebook chief privacy officer and head of global public policy Chris Kelly told ZDNet Asia's sister site ZDNet UK on Tuesday that the government proposals, which include monitoring social-networking sites, were excessive.

"We think monitoring all user traffic is overkill," Kelly said. "There is legislation to allow law enforcement access to traffic data [of suspects]. We are not convinced at this time that expansion of those channels is necessary."

Kelly was responding to a speech made by Home Office security minister Vernon Coaker on 18 March at a meeting of the House of Commons Fourth Delegated Legislation Committee. Coaker said the EU Data Retention Directive, which requires internet service providers to retain traffic data for at least 12 months, did not go far enough, as the directive did not apply to social-networking providers.

Coaker said the government was considering retaining traffic data for all instant messaging and communications on social-networking sites, including Facebook, MySpace, and Bebo, as part of its Intercept Modernization Program (IMP).

The IMP, a proposed overhaul of intelligence service systems, has two strands. First, the government would use deep packet inspection to monitor and record the traffic data of all U.K. Internet communications and telecommunications, including instant messaging and VoIP. The second strand of IMP is to store that data in a centralized government database.

Kelly said if the government monitors social-networking users, Facebook's business could suffer, as people might dislike the privacy implications of their Internet and social-networking traffic data being monitored by the state.

"One of the reasons that Facebook has been so successful is that it provides greater privacy controls than any other [social-networking service] on the Internet," Kelly said. "The privacy controls allow people to share information in a comfortable, safe and trusted environment."

Kelly said there was a risk some people may perceive government monitoring as invasive, and so stop using Facebook services. He added that this risk is one of the reasons why police currently only monitor those they suspect of criminality.

"This is one of the reasons that particularization has been required to get access to that information," Kelly said. "The idea of doing full monitoring of traffic is a boil-the-ocean strategy."

Kelly added that the government suggestions were also impractical from a technical point of view, and may be self-defeating for counter-terrorism efforts.

"There are design and computing-power limitations, and strategic limits on human power to analyse all that information," Kelly said. "That's why [interception] needs to be targeted."

Facebook has not yet lobbied the government over its IMP proposals, but may do so, Kelly said.

"We haven't engaged the government directly at this point," he added. "We are happy to have a conversation with any law-enforcement authority around any activity on Facebook."

Kelly spoke to ZDNet Asia's sister site ZDNet UK at the e-Crime Congress in London on Tuesday.

The Home Office had not responded to a request for comment at the time of writing.

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