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Getting Facebook and Google to spy on us more is not the way to fight crime


David Cameron

David Cameron


David Cameron

Should social networks start reporting suspicious or other activity occurring on their websites? Do they have a "social responsibility" to do so?

And if you answer 'yes' to either question, are you prepared to sacrifice some of your everyday communications privacy to help it happen?

This week, British prime minister David Cameron tore into Facebook for not contacting police about Facebook messages posted by the killer of British soldier Lee Rigby last year before his death.

"Their networks are being used to plot murder and mayhem," said Mr Cameron in the House Of Commons. "It is their social responsibility to act on this."

Leave aside the irony that all Facebook users' communications are already picked up by Mr Cameron's security agency colleagues. And forget, for a second, that he is currently seeking a populist issue to connect to older, more conservative demographics ahead of an election.

The main question is whether his core point is right. Should social networks - or instant messaging apps or mobile phone companies - start policing our communications in a much more active way to try and detect illegal intent or actions? Would we feel safer or spied on?

Critics of social networks argue that Facebook, Twitter, Google and others are floating above societal control, while reaping all of the benefits. It is time, they say, to make them aware that with great power comes great responsibility.

"This company does not regard itself as under any obligation to ensure that it identifies threats [such as those posted by Lee Rigby's killer], or to report them to authorities," said British MP Malcolm Rifkind referring to Facebook this week. "However unintentionally, they provide a safe haven for terrorists."

He suggests the alternative was that Facebook should start informing on users when suspicious behaviour is detected.

But here is the thing: what would social networks start policing? Would it just be terrorism-related indicators? Could it include violent crime? How about extreme bullying or hate speech? And would white-collar criminals be given a social media pass from this new crackdown or should Facebook start recruiting financial crime experts to meet their new responsibilities?

These are not tangential points. In Ireland, we hear frequent calls for tighter regulation of social networks - up to and including reporting responsibilities - from a range of organisations. Many represent injured or vulnerable parties, such as victims of child abuse, bullying or online harassment. Their distress is real, as are their concerns.

So should we start insisting that social networks copy and forward items of interest to police when they come across them, across a broad range of crimes and illegality? Should we set expectations on them as a new pillar of law enforcement?

There are some practical hurdles to overcome if this is to be seriously considered.

Choosing which police to inform is one of them. For instance, procuring an abortion is illegal in Ireland. Should Google (Gmail) or Yahoo start tipping off An Garda Siochana whenever bookings are made over email for procedures in certain UK clinics?

And if we place this onus on email and social messaging companies, shouldn't we logically include ph one companies? After all, a criminal is unlikely to see much difference between a Whatsapp message and an SMS text.

This, probably, is where such a plan could run into serious difficulty. It is debatable whether ordinary people would accept new surveillance dragnets placed on their phones, landlines and email accounts, let alone their social network feeds.

But even if the networks' new informant mandate was accepted for narrow purposes, such as the fight against terrorism, it would still present practical difficulties. Might it mean that anyone connected to Sinn Fein would automatically be on a monitor-and-report blacklist from Facebook, Twitter and Gmail? Could it even extend as far as suspected "sinister elements" among anti-water charges protesters?

All of this is before we even consider whether An Garda Siochana are really after all of this intelligence in the first place. In general, investigators here rarely seek information from social networks, even when we are legally entitled to do so.

For example, Irish authorities made just 10 requests relating to Gmail, Google Docs, YouTube or other Google accounts held by Irish citizens in the first six months of this year and which generally related to criminal investigations.

The figures, released in Google's most recent 'Transparency Report', show that Irish authorities request user data far less often than other European security and civil authorities. The UK government made 1,535 requests for citizens' information from Google. Countries closer in population to Ireland also made more requests, with Denmark logging 52 user data requests, Belgium made 213 user data requests and Portugal made 338 such requests.

It's a similar story for other social networks. Last year, Facebook received 69 requests here relating to 76 Facebook accounts while Yahoo received 47 requests relating to 47 accounts. And Twitter reported "under 10" requests, while LinkedIn said that Irish authorities asked for details just once during the same time period.

So whereas our British neighbours might be clamouring for regular intelligence reports supplied by social media networks on their own citizens, we would appear to have a slightly more lackadaisical attitude on the matter.

It is tempting to look to social networks to solve crime for us. But are we ready for the kind of privacy compromises it would necessitate?

Irish Independent