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Police moot pop-up social network warnings

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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.

It was submitted in response to the Home Office's consultation on the Interception Modernisation Programme, a multibillion-pound scheme to compel ISPs to intercept and store details of who contacts whom, when, where and how via VoIP, email, the web and instant messenger.

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. The Home Office envisages that subsidised Deep Packet Inspection equipment will be used to intercept information such as who internet users contact on Facebook.

Such an approach would be stymied if social networks were to adopt encryption, for example. Facebook has said it believes monitoring its users' communications would be "overkill" by authorities, so it is not inconceivable that social networks would think about scrambling their traffic. The commercial threat from ACPO's pop-up warnings might make them think again.

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. ®

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