Activists warned to watch what they say as social media monitoring becomes 'next big thing in law enforcement'

Paul Mobbs mobbsey at
Mon Oct 1 14:55:14 BST 2012

Hash: SHA1

Wow! As if we didn't already know! (I remember the days, 30 years ago, when 
the police went around with CB's to listen-in on Nukewatchers!)

I think this headline is stating the obvious, seeking to generate shock 
where none should exist -- and the last line says it all.

In effect it's a call for self censorship by campaigners when in fact, if we 
truly believe what we say, then we should say it as the core truth of our 
work irrespective of the consequences which might flow from that -- 
precisely because it's only by challenging those views/practices which are 
in opposition to progressive views that we'll create progress.

A state where saying unwelcome facts is tantamount to taking arms is not a 
free or democratic state -- it's a despotic oligarchy where only the 
interests of one group are pursued by the state rather than the interests 
of all.


Activists warned to watch what they say as social media monitoring becomes 
'next big thing in law enforcement'

Exclusive: John Cooper QC said that police are monitoring key activists 
online and that officers and the courts are becoming increasingly savvy when 
it comes to social media

Kevin Rawlinson, The Independent On-line, Monday 1st October 2012

Political activists must watch what they say on the likes of Facebook and 
Twitter, sites which will become the “next big thing in law enforcement”, a 
leading human rights lawyer has warned.

John Cooper QC said that police are monitoring key activists online and 
that officers and the courts are becoming increasingly savvy when it comes to 
social media. But, speaking to The Independent, he added that he also 
expected that to drive an increase in the number of criminals being brought 
to justice in the coming months.

"People involved in public protest should use social media to their 
strengths, like getting their message across. But they should not use them 
for things like discussing tactics. They might as well be having a tactical 
meeting with their opponents sitting in and listening.

"For example, if antifascist organisers were discussing their plans on 
social media, they can assume that a fascist organisation will be watching. 
Social media sites are the last place you want to post something like 
that," he said.

Mr Cooper QC's warning comes after a New York court ordered Twitter to hand 
over messages posted on the site by a demonstrator belonging to the Occupy 
Wall Street movement in America. Malcolm Harris, 23, is accused of 
disorderly conduct after he was arrested on Brooklyn Bridge during a 
protest last October.

After a lengthy legal fight, Twitter eventually complied with an order to 
hand over the tweets on 14 September. Prosecutors hope to use them to 
disprove the demonstrator's defence that police escorted the protesters on 
to the bridge before arresting them for allegedly blocking it.

Addressing the possibility of similar cases arising in the UK, Mr Cooper QC 
said: "The police are aware and are getting more aware of powers to force 
and compel platforms to reveal anonymous sites." He cited the case of 
Nicola Brookes, in which he succeeded in forcing Facebook to hand over 
details exposing the identity of an anonymous online bully.

Mr Cooper QC added: "activists are putting themselves at more risk. Police 
will be following key Twitter sites, not only those of the activists but 
also other interesting figures. They know how to use them to keep up with 
rioting and to find alleged rioters.

"In the same way they used to monitor mobile phones when they were trying 
to police impromptu raves, they are doing the same with Twitter and 
Facebook, as those who say too much on social media will find."

But some activists are trying to overcome that naivety. In London on 
Saturday, former members of the Occupy encampment outside St Paul's 
Cathedral - among others - were among the 130 people who meet technical 
experts for lessons on how to keep themselves safe online. The so-called 
"Cryptoparty" was part of a global movement to arm those who want to carry 
out protests online with the skills to maintain their anonymity.

Attendees at the event at the Google Campus in east London's Tech City were 
simply asked to bring a laptop and technology experts promised to teach 
them skills like encryption. The events were the brainchild of an 
Australian activist, who uses the online nickname Asher Wolf. She said: 
"The idea is to stay safe online and protect the privacy of personal 

She added that there were more secure forms of online communication than 
those commonly used and insisted that Cryptoparty was not a tutorial on how 
to hack but said that, once people have learned to maintain their online 
security, "what they choose to do in their private communications is their 

While some argue that genuinely peaceful protesters can have little fear of 
arrest regardless of what they say online, Mr Cooper QC said: "It would be 
wrong to establish a general rule that private communications should be 
handed over to the police. The principle that the law enforcement agencies 
should establish relevance first should not be diluted."

The lead officer on digital media and engagement for the Association of Chief 
Police Officers Deputy Chief Constable Gordon Scobbie confirmed that police 
"monitor social media for potential issues" around protests but said they 
generally use them to engage with demonstrators, which he said was "key to 
the police service's approach to policing peaceful protests".

However, some have found themselves regularly the subject of unwanted 
police attention as a result of their attendance at demonstrations. In May, 
peaceful protester John Catt lost his legal fight to force police to delete 
information they hold on him on the National Extremism Database. Pictures 
of and references to him are held because of his links to protest groups.

But long-term activist Mr Catt argued that, since he has never been 
convicted of any crime, officers were not justified in recording the details. 
Lawyers for Mr Catt claimed that he is "logged and recorded wherever he 
goes" and that the surveillance at more than 55 protests had a "chilling 
effect" on people exercising the right to protest.

But Lord Justice Gross and Mr Justice Irwin sitting in the High Court 
refused to order police to remove references to him from the database, 
saying that recording his actions was a "predictable consequence" of 
regularly attending demonstrations.

And that ruling came around five months after it emerged that City of London 
Police included the Occupy London movement on a leaflet warning businesses 
in The City about terrorist threats. The CoLP dismissed the inclusion of 
the protest movement alongside the likes of al-Qa'ida as a clerical error.

But, Mr Cooper QC said, social media are "far too much of an important tool 
not to be used but they need used in a less naïve way".

He added: "When people are acting within their rights of public protest, 
which are important but often become the 'Cinderella right' because they 
are subservient to their siblings, they should be very careful indeed about 
what they post because I would suspect that key activists are being 
followed anonymously by law enforcement agencies.

"These social networks are all, in my opinion, forces for good; I am a 
great fan. But they are liable to abuse and misuse. And, not only are the 
police catching up, the courts are too. The Lord Chief Justice is very 
social media-aware and in fact allowed tweeting from court.

"It is right to say the criminal courts are social media friendly; the law 
is beginning to understand them. If people continue to use social media in 
a naïve way then legitimate individuals are probably going to give too much 

While he supported the right of people exercising their rights to public 
protest without unnecessary disruption, Mr Cooper QC stressed that real 
criminality was a very different issue.

He said that an unambiguously positive effect of the police's increased 
interest in social media would be an increasing numbers of criminals being 
caught because of their indiscretions online. He said: "With social media, 
it is amazing how many people involved with crime seem to let themselves 
down with it.

"More and more, the police and defence teams analyse the Facebook accounts 
of witnesses they are trying to undermine. It is accepted in criminal law 
that remarks made on these which are inconsistent can be put to the witness 
as inconsistencies in evidence or as evidence of bad character."

DCC Scobbie agreed, saying: "The police service works hard to secure 
evidence from any source during the course of an investigation. Information 
which is openly and publically available on social media sites that links 
criminals to crimes and offences has been used to help secure successful 

Mr Cooper QC added: "One of the big revelations in crime detection in 
recent decades was the Filofax; it was amazing how often serious, 
professional criminals would record the weights of drugs in their 
conspiracies in little graphs in the back of their Filofaxes.

"The police soon learned to seize the Filofax when they searched a house. 
Things move on and the next big thing was mobile phones; they were a 
revelation. With mobiles, not only do we have a whole industry in forensic 
phone analysis, we can also work out where people were using the phone by 
the mast locations.

He cited a past client who insisted he was not at the scene of a murder he 
was accused of committing but who - mobile records showed - had made a call 
while standing next to the bin the victim's body was later found in.

He said: "Police will use social media just as they used the Filofax and 
the mobile phone and why shouldn't they?"

- -- 


"We are not for names, nor men, nor titles of Government,
nor are we for this party nor against the other but we are
for justice and mercy and truth and peace and true freedom,
that these may be exalted in our nation, and that goodness,
righteousness, meekness, temperance, peace and unity with
God, and with one another, that these things may abound."
(Edward Burrough, 1659 - from 'Quaker Faith and Practice')

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