Is Policing Surveillance of Online Social Media Out of Control? : A UK Legal Perspective


Session: PARALLEL SESSION 8Social media: policing, profiling

Date and time: 25th April 2014. (17:00‐18:30)

Authors: Lilian Edwards and Lachlan Urquhart

Is Policing Surveillance of Online Social Media Out of Control? : A UK Legal Perspective

This paper will argue that law enforcement agency (LEA) surveillance of online social media is becoming commonplace, without parallel development of adequate legal structures to protect civil liberties. Online users routinely share copious amounts of personal data, including intimate detail about their daily activities, thoughts and experiences, on social networking platforms; consequently these are known to have become a valuable intelligence resource for LEAs. High profile events, such as the London riots in summer 2011, as well as the revelations concerning, first, US intelligence use of Raytheon Riot software in 2012, and then the extensive backdoor NSA access to social media data in both the US and UK revealed by Edward Snowden in 2013, have made this a source of major public concern. Users of social media have arguably created a near-perfect panopticon, in Foucault’s terminology, for unobserved and uncontrolled mass surveillance of themselves. Worse still, the keepers of the panopticon are not a state authority accountable to public scrutiny but commercial bodies who owe minimal obligations of accountability and transparency.

The paper will focus on UK legal regulation, and compare curbs on traditional non-digital direct and covert surveillance by police to those on surveillance of social media and digital communications, and then ask whether existing regulation is adequate to protect values including privacy, autonomy and due process. Relevant UK and EU laws will be analysed, including, notably, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) and we will conclude that UK law presents few bars to general social media surveillance eg by topic or hashtag, and even targeted social media surveillance of individual profiles remains a grey area.


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