Monday, February 11, 2013

Thoughtcrime nears with social media tracking tool

A defence company has built specialist software which will enable the tracking of people who use social networks. The news has been greeted with concern by civil rights groups who believe it is yet another step towards a 'Big Brother' state.

Targeting people's movements

The software, called RIOT [Rapid Information Overlay Technology], has been developed by Raytheon, a major American defence contractor and industrial corporation with core manufacturing concentrations in weapons and military and commercial electronics.

The company, which is also the world's largest producer of guided missiles, is now offering software which can track information posted on social media websites which might enable authorities to target criminals before they actually commit a felony.

Raytheon first began to develop the "extreme-scale analytics" system in 2010. The software allows the user to track people's movements and even predict their behaviour by mining data from social networking sites including Facebook, Twitter, Gowalla, and Foursquare.  

The company claims that it has not sold this software to any clients, but has shared it with US government and industry. However it remains unclear whether the US government or other parties have made use of the technology, nor if indeed it has been shared with other countries [Guardian / Telegraph / Daily Mail / Guardian: YouTube video].

Similar to UK system

In 2011 British police closely monitored Twitter feeds and other social networks in an attempt to stay one step ahead of the rioters who brought chaos to the streets of London and other cities across England. Criminals were able to avoid scrutiny however by using the Blackberry BBM instant message service which is difficult for authorities to intercept without warrants. Following the riots the Metropolitan Police purchased Geotime, software which offers similar facilities to RIOT [Daily Mail / Guardian].

Given the increasing use of technology in criminal activity, Britain is proposing to tighten its laws concerning the monitoring of phone calls, emails and Internet usage. The Communications Bill, proposed by Home Secretary Theresa May, would require additional data collection and retention of user activity by Internet service providers and mobile phone services. Companies would be required to record contact information for each user's webmail, voice calls, social media, Internet gaming, and mobile phone contacts and store them for 12 months. It is expected to become law in 2014.

Internet restrictions

Ministers insist the reforms are vital for countering paedophiles, extremists and fraudsters but civil liberties have attacked the Bill's scope and branded it a "snoopers' charter". The Bill also comes on the back of the Digital Economy Act 2010 which allows the UK government, amongst other things, to disconnect Internet connections associated with copyright infringement by copyright owners.

While pressure resulted in sections 17 and 18 of the Act concerning website blocking were dropped, the blocking of websites is still possible through use of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, though this technically only applies to websites which infringe copyright.

However civil rights campaigners believe the government is slowly working towards the building of a censored Internet. A 'Great Firewall of Britain' may be some way off, but there have already been examples where ISPs have been forced to block certain websites.


Last year VirginMedia and BT were obliged to block access to the Torrent site Pirate Bay. The High Court in London had ruled that The Pirate Bay facilitated copyright infringement and several ISPs blocked access to the site within weeks of the ruling.

BT used its Cleanfeed content blocking system. Launched in 2004 Cleanfeed was intended to block child sexual abuse content hosted around the world. Its use in blocking The Pirate Bay was seen by some as a further step towards a censored Internet.

It was not the first time BT had used Cleanfeed to block such content however. In June 2011 the Motion Picture Association began court proceedings in an attempt to force BT to use Cleanfeed to block access to NewzBin2, a site indexing downloads of copyrighted content. The company complied to a subsequent court order.

Growing censorship

While it understandable that both authorities and ISPs would wish to block illegal content, especially child pornography, some companies have gone further than most in 'protecting' the user.

BT, for example, uses a barring and filtering mechanism to restrict access to all WAP and Internet sites that are considered to have an 'over 18' status. Users attempting to access such sites may be redirected to a page informing them of the block and asking that they call the telecom's company in order to lift the bar. Internet censorship in the United Kingdom may not have become as extreme as seen in places like China or Iran but growing sensitivity and concerns about certain content are likely to change what content is available.


Increased worries over criminal activity online may also erode privacy on the Internet. While RIOT only allows the data mining of publicly posted material, government warrants could easily force changes to allow private posts to be accessed.

While there is the age old argument of not having anything to hide if one has done nothing wrong, there is the danger of otherwise innocent acts being misinterpreted. RIOT also bring the idea of 'thoughtcrime' just one step closer.

Some believe that day has already arrived, and there are already victims. When Aaron Swartz, a programmer and Internet activist, committed suicide in January some of those close to him suggested he had been hounded to his death and that allegations made by authorities amounted to little more than Thoughcrime [Daily Beast]. 

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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