Westminster Council unveils plans for social media monitoring

In the aftermath of the London riots, there has been a range of ‘interesting’ ideas around social media and digital communications. 

Today’s Times carries one such example – Westminster council is to set up a ‘gang information desk‘ to monitor and report suspicious activity on-line.

It’s not clear if they will be monitoring only public information or if they will be seeking to access private communications – for example, the much maligned Blackberry Messenger service. From initial reports, it would appear that social workers who are part of networks would be expected to pass on information. Illustrating this point, Councillor Nickie Aiken, Cabinet Member for Children, Young People and Community Protection at Westminster, was quoted as saying  “we need to explore if we can get into these groups.”

If this were the case, it would be a gross abuse of the relationship between social workers and young people, and a serious invasion of privacy. Furthermore, it would only exacerbate the mis-trust between young people and the authorities at a time when we can ill afford to do so.

Councils should not be seeking access to private communications and personal data when they have little justification for doing so or without the approval of a court. If crimes are being committed, it is the job of the police to investigate – local councils have no role in spying on citizens in this manner.

Intrusive policies like this do not make the public safer or tackle the causes of crime and gangs and Westminster council needs to urgently clarify what its plans are – and how they will respect the civil liberties of its residents.