Police: We're not watching you on social media

The Metropolitan Police does not glean as much intelligence from social media as the public think, and they are still working out how best to use such networks during unrest, MPs have heard
Written by Jack Clark, Contributor on

The Metropolitan Police are not keeping track of activity on social media as much as the public believe, but they are warming to the idea of using the technology to gather information, MPs have been told.


The acting commissioner of the Met Police has said that the force is not keeping track of activity on Twitter and other social media as much as the public believe. Image credit: Pixelbully

On Tuesday, acting Met commissioner Tim Godwin rebuffed the idea that the police are monitoring everyone's digital communications. He also said shutting down social media during the riots that hit London in August would have been a "net negative".

"One of the biggest challenges we have is the perception that we have intelligence about everything and what everybody does at any one time in the day," he told a parliamentary select committee meeting. "I reassure this committee — who I think would be quite worried about that if we did — that we haven't."

The thrust of Godwin's response was that social media sites such as Twitter are useful tools for the police to use to gather information or inform the public, but the police need to learn how best to react to data that flows across the sites.

"We do have to look at how we use that intelligence. Because the criticism that comes [is] because it was on a social-media site, that some site was going to be ransacked and it is, [people ask] 'Why aren't the police there?'" he said. "The actuality is there are about 300 other places that might be [ransacked] as well."

During the unrest, circumstantial evidence pointed to the use by rioters of services such as Research In Motion's BlackBerry Messenger to co-ordinate the ransacking of shops and other criminal acts. After the riots swept London and other cities in August, Twitter, RIM and Facebook met home secretary Theresa May to discuss whether it would be right to block their services during times of disorder.

"The view that I'm getting is [shutting down social-media sites] is not seen as a clear benefit for the police," mayor of London Boris Johnson told the committee.

His view mirrors that of the government. "The government are committed to a free and open internet, and we are not seeking additional powers to close down social-media networks," the Home Office's minister of state, Baroness Browning, said in response to a question in the House of Lords on Tuesday.

However, Facebook has suggested it might make changes to its service to help the authorities identify trouble via social networks. After meeting May, the company said it had "talked through the positive procedures and good practices we have in place and how we can build on them to effectively deal with serious crime, mirroring what we have achieved in the child-safety area".

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