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…