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Social media can help to keep the Olympics safe

Rapier surface-to-air anti-aircraft missiles have been installed on rooftops in preparation for the London 2012 Olympics © Nirazul/Wikimedia Commons

The Olympics are the country’s biggest peacetime security operation. But as Rapier surface-to-air missile batteries are installed on building rooftops, and HMS Ocean berths in the Thames, equally significant activity is taking place out of sight. London 2012 are the first social media Games, and for the first time security efforts will be extended over this new theatre too.

Since Beijing four years ago, we have shifted our social lives and activities online. Social media is used for good and bad: criminals as well as democratic revolutionaries take advantage of the way it allows us to connect, recruit and organise at speed. Last year’s riots and student demonstrations were a wake-up call to the police of the need to keep up with these changes. Indeed, while a large-scale terrorist attack during the Games is possible, the more likely scenario is a series of low intensity demonstrations and flash-mobs that would cause considerable disruption, economic harm and reputational damage.

Last month, Scotland Yard created a social media hub capable of scanning social media to better spot and stop outbreaks of disorder or criminal activity during the Games. A number of other police forces here and around the world are believed to be looking into similar ways of getting a security dividend from looking at social media.

The potential benefit to public safety is sizeable. Over the last 18 months, the field of “social media analytics” which accesses and analyses social media content has developed at breakneck speed, providing new insights into everything from predicting box-office takings to preventing epidemics (in some cases, Google can spot a flu outbreak quicker than the US government). Security services and policing agencies have caught on, recognising the power of such software to identify criminal activity, track disorder, and tap into a vast trove of “crowd-sourced” information that people have volunteered.

For all the potential of social media intelligence, this new type of policing is barely past infancy. When the Olympic flame is extinguished, London will return to normality. But as the warship departs the Thames, the policing of social media will remain, and a new settlement will be needed.

First: how should such activity be regulated? The speed of the social media revolution makes the existing laws designed to protect our privacy look dated. The current Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) regulates the interception of private communications with a tight system of warrants. But it passed into law over a decade ago, long before social media muddied distinctions between the private and public, which makes it difficult to interpret. Is a police officer joining and monitoring a suspect social media group under an alias doing anything different to a 1950s special branch officer in plain clothes sitting at the back of a meeting of the Communist Party of Great Britain? Or is it more similar to following a suspect covertly in the street? The answer should determine the level of authorisation required under RIPA. This even applies to information that might technically be in the public domain. Large-scale collection of even publicly available information online, for example from public Facebook profiles or open-source tweets, might have a chilling effect on social media itself, which would be both socially and economically damaging.

Second: will it work? Police and intelligence agencies are accustomed to working in a world of information scarcity. Social media brings a deluge, with large rations of nonsense. Rumours, lies, and misinformation spread like wildfire: during last year’s riots a trending untruth was that a tiger had been let loose on Primrose Hill. Relying on automated scanning software to search key words and measure sentiment (inevitable when thousands of pieces of information are uploaded every second) can overlook context and intent. Paul Chambers’s tweet threatening to blow Nottingham airport “sky high” (for which he was convicted, but is currently appealing) is typical of the medium: sarcasm, exaggeration, irony and bragging are widespread, and not easily discerned. Intentional misinformation—a modern equivalent of the German Funkspiel radio in the second world war—is easy to manufacture by smart hackers and coders, who would like to send the police up costly blind alleys.

Social media intelligence might be another legacy of the Games. As it moves closer to becoming a formal part of the intelligence and policing effort, it will need its own ways of testing reliability, a new cadre of social media savvy analysts and specialists, and better, more human-centric technology. But above all it will need a clear, unambiguous legal framework that reflects today’s attitudes and norms of privacy and sharing: when and how should Tweets be collected? Who authorises a police officer to join a Facebook group? How is the data accessed, stored and used safely? What opportunities are there for redress if anyone oversteps the mark?

Algorithms and data-scraping might seem a far cry from Robert Peel’s bobbies patrolling with a truncheon and rattle. Technology, of course, is always disruptive. But Peel’s principles of public consent and accountability remain at the heart of modern policing. Evolving technology and attitudes will endlessly disrupt the delicate liberty-versus-security balance. Whatever the balance, it rests on our general consent expressed through parliament. Social media does not change that.

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