Social media being increasingly used by police, conference told

Gathering explores drone technology, mobile phone video and privacy issues

Lawyers, privacy activists, academics and other experts meet to discuss issues around digital privacy at the inaugural Digital Rights Europe conference in Dublin on Wednesday. Photograph: Thinkstock

Social media is increasingly being used by police authorities and citizens are essentially being used as tools to enable their own surveillance, a conference on digital rights and privacy has heard.

The inaugural Digital Rights Europe conference took place in Dublin on Wednesday.

The conference organised by Digital Rights Ireland (DRI) explored privacy issues, including policing and the use of body cameras, surveillance technology, social media, drone technology, and the use of mobile phone video by law enforcement authorities and citizens.

Sadhbh McCarthy of the Centre for Irish and European Security told the conference that social media was now being used increasingly as a low-cost method of policing people. Law enforcement authorities were increasingly using people’s information without their knowledge in a particular way.


So-called ‘socmint’ – social media intelligence – was the instrumentalisation of citizens and social media for policing, she said.

When all the information police had available to them from such sources was put together and someone became a “person of interest”, that’s when things became problematic, Ms McCarthy said.

“What is really happening is we are all watching each other. We are surveilling each other and the state is instrumentalising us by using the data we share.”

“Most of the time what happens isn’t illegal but I think we do have to ask is it legitimate?” she asked.

Ms McCarthy said the PSNI had, however, done a “really good job” of piloting social media effectively.”

Barrister Fergal Crehan who has represented Digital Rights Ireland in cases before the European Court of Justice, told the conference he believed the issue of the so-called 'right to be forgotten', would come before the courts again following the landmark Google judgment.

It would perhaps not be before the European courts, but he believed it would certainly come before the domestic courts.

“I think it’s a useful right and a useful countervailing opinion to Google having the ‘right to know everything’. It’s a useful corrective, at least, to that view. But it’s going to have to be tinkered with.”

Mr Crehan, who recently established a business to help people have embarrassing photos and other content removed from the internet, said so-called ‘revenge porn’ was far more common than he had expected.

He cited cases of young women who had gone viral online.

“They go to sleep and wake up famous. And it’s something that overwhelmingly happens to women,” Mr Crehan said.

Where anything sexual was involved, women were “presumed to be shameable”.

Mr Crehan said he believed if there was some civil remedy whereby individuals could enforce their rights without having to prove monetary damage, then companies would soon afterwards begin to “behave themselves” with regard to personal data.

Brian Honan of BH Consulting, who is also a special adviser on internet security to Europol's cybercrime centre, noted the contents of the 2013 Verizon Data Breach Investigations report published on Tuesday.

It found that some 69 per cent of companies did not know they had suffered a data breach until they were told by a third party. Some 22 per cent were detected by the organisation itself and 9 per cent were detected by customers.

Minister for Data Protection Dara Murphy opened the conference at the Grand Canal Hotel on Wednesday morning.

The minister said he would shortly advertise for interested groups to participate in a data forum, which will advise the data protection unit in the Department of the Taoiseach.

Other speakers included Elizabeth Knight, legal director at the UK’s Open Rights Group, who will spoke about the UK legislative framework in light of Edward Snowden’s revelations of mass US government surveillance.

Barrister Joseph Dalby and John Wright of Flightpath discussed the privacy, data protection and ethical issues that arise with the use of drones by public and private sector bodies.

Digital Rights Ireland director and law lecturer Dr TJ McIntyre spoke on the legal and civil rights issues presented by filtering or blocking of websites on copyright, ethical and legal grounds.

Digital Rights Ireland, a non-governmental organisation, has been involved in several prominent cases, including a challenge to the entire EU framework allowing the retention of phone and internet data for up to two years.

Its action led to the striking down of the 2006 European Data Retention Directive by the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg in April last year.

The court found the legislation was a “wide-ranging and particularly serious interference with the fundamental right to privacy” which would result in “private lives being the subject of constant surveillance”.

Solicitor Simon McGarr, who represented Digital Rights in Ireland in the case, noted it had ultimately affected the rights of 500 million European citizens.

“I think it was rather a good day’s work,” he said.