By Chris Williams
Police moot pop-up social network warnings
Exclusive Police chiefs have privately proposed that social networking sites hosted overseas should carry pop-up government health warnings, as part of measures to increase surveillance of the internet.
In a submission to the Home Office, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) said senior judges or Ministers could decide which communications services the public would be warned off.
The idea is likely to spark concerns from ISPs over further regulation, and from civil liberties groups opposed to government interference online.
The ACPO document, obtained by The Register, suggests the government may “minimise or discourage or give ‘pop-up’ warnings as regards to communications services within the online environment where there is evidence, presented to a Circuit Judge or Secretary of State, that allowing the public access or use of specific communications services could make them vulnerable to fraud, the theft of personal information or other attack”.
ACPO does not explain the technical details of its plan, but points out that “measures already exist to minimise the availability of potentially illegal content”. However, it cites the Internet Watch Foundation’s blacklist of international URLs carrying indecent and abusive images of children, suggesting a parallel list of social networks, forums and real time messaging sites judged to be risky could be created.
The proposal was drawn up by ACPO’s Data Communications Group. The group is chaired by Jim Gamble, the chief executive of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, which is responsible for policing paedophiles on the internet.
The Home Office consultation is not concerned with regulation of internet content or particular social networks, but ACPO suggests that if the Interception Modernisation Programme cannot harvest communications data from some services, then discouraging their use is a reasonable alternative. It is envisaged that subsidised Deep Packet Inspection equipment will be used to intercept information such as who internet users contact on Facebook.
ACPO said it “will need to be assured that the very rapid growth of social networking websites is taken into account and included within the government’s final proposals, especially when most, if not all, of the popular sites are hosted in the United States”.
The Home Office summarised the results of the consultation on the Interception Modernisation Programme last month. A barrage of criticism from ISPs and mobile operators prompted it to “develop the approach proposed in the consultation in the light of the responses received”. Further announcements aren’t now expected until after the general election.
By Henry Porter
Every parent a suspect
“Soft intelligence” is the phrase used by the head of the Independent Standards Authority (ISA), Sir Roger Singleton, in explanation of the sort of information his quango will seek to vet 9 million people who have contact with children. It’s a pity this ghoul of bureaucratic suspicion doesn’t use the more easily understood words of “rumour” and “unfounded and malicious gossip” because that is what soft intelligence is. It will not be proven by a court or any kind of formal hearing but will linger like a bad smell around the names of many innocent people, who of course will not be able to challenge the decisions of the ISA.
The criteria for who must be vetted were changed but essentially the announcement is part of an operation to reduce the widespread contempt for this epic piece of Labour madness, as well as for Singleton’s organisation.
As Josie Appleton of the Manifesto Club, which started the campaign against the Vetting and Barring Scheme, said:
Wherever Ed Balls redraws the line on who must register on the vetting database, this is still an absurd law. It is arbitrary whether he defines ‘frequent’ contact with children as once a month or once a week; or whether he defines ‘intensive’ contact as three or four days in a month. Neither definition helps child welfare – and any definition can only obstruct and overburden the informal ways in which adults help and care for children.
On the Today programme, Singleton didn’t disagree when James Naughtie said that 20,000 people would be barred by the ISA from contact with children by 2015. The logic of this must mean that 20,000 people in Britain present an active threat at this very moment. Can that really be true? If it is, why do the figures for reported child abuse reach nothing like this staggering level?
The Vetting and Barring Scheme is one of the main pillars of the government’s attack on the presumption of innocence. That members of the public must now regularly submit to the state’s checking procedures so that they may continue in normal, everyday activities such as helping out with football coaching or choir practice, is a symbol of the entire rotten edifice of intervention and monitoring that Labour has introduced to the national life.
The scheme has led to an atmosphere of hysterical suspicion and fear that is clearly very damaging; parents are being banned from school events such as carol services and sports days unless they carry ID such as a passport; playgrounds are being shut to parents who want to watch their kids; and volunteers have simply drifted away, disgusted by the fact that they are regarded as potential abusers.
Singleton has sought to blame the rigid requirements of the Vetting and Barring Scheme on politicians, who paid almost no attention when the scheme was supposedly debated in parliament. In this he is right but there are areas of discretion in the way that the scheme has been implemented by the ISA, which must suggest that the new quango has become drunk on power and has not sufficiently examined the use of such things as “soft intelligence”, or the cautions handed out by police. Rumour, gossip and unproven allegations are being allowed to taint people’s reputations and interfere with their legitimate rights to seek a livelihood.
The changes make little difference to what Appleton calls the culture of vetting. The suspicion will continue until we gain some sense of proportion. “The vast majority of decent adults need to have the confidence to help and look out for children, without having to submit themselves to surveillance or to undergo state licensing,” she said.
The struggle for reason and balance has only just begun.