[Editor's Note - CISPA was passed by the House]  

"We must be allowed to spy on Facebook and Twitter..." In the UK, Sir David Omand, former Permanent Secretary and Security and Intelligence Co-ordinator in the Cabinet Office, says criminals are increasingly making use of online social networks such as Twitter and Facebook to communicate.

In the US, The Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (Cispa) is due to be heard in the House of Representatives this week and now has the backing of 112 members of Congress. The bill aims to make it easier for US companies and authorities to share information as they tackle online crime. But it has been attacked by civil liberties groups as too broadly written and a threat to the privacy of ordinary citizens.

Image Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/hendry/6857338813/

According to a detailed article on the subject, the former director of GCHQ said it was essential that monitoring was put on a legal footing so that where individuals have put up privacy settings on their social network accounts any monitoring which involves the interception of communications should require a warrant. The report states: ‘Democratic legitimacy demands that where new methods of intelligence gathering and use are to be introduced, they should be on a firm legal basis and rest on parliamentary and public understanding of what is involved, even if the operational details of the sources and methods used must sometimes remain secret.'

‘People now share vastly more personal information about themselves, their friends and their networks in new a varied ways: what is ‘public’ and what is ‘private’ is not always obvious and differs greatly across social media platforms and even within social media platforms.’

The report’s publication comes against the background of intense controversy over the Government’s plans to extend the monitoring of all texts, telephone calls, emails and internet traffic in the UK.

"Public Trust"

Sir David went on to say that proper regulation was essential to ensure public trust in the system. But does the public really trust this sort of surveillance? Let's move over the US for a second and have a look at Cispa and the reaction it is getting.

Popular civil liberty activist and republication presidential candidate Ron Paul has been rallying his supporters against the proposed legislation:

"We should never underestimate the federal government's insatiable desire to control the internet," said Paul in an address released Monday. "Cispa permits both the federal government and private companies to view your private online communications without judicial oversight provided that they do so of course in the name of cyber-security."

The bill was too broadly written and allows the government to use people's information "far beyond any reasonable definition of fighting cyberterrorism," Paul said. Paul went on to say Cispa was an "alarming form of corporatism" that "further intertwines government with companies like Google and Facebook. It permits them to hand over your private communication to government officials without a warrant. Circumventing the well-known established federal laws like the wiretap act and the electronic communications privacy act."

Teaming with Devs?

We've heard of 3rd party devs working using the APIs of social media sites, but Mr Omand wants a Green Paper to be published on monitoring social media sites and for private industry to link up with the Government to develop analytical tools to monitor developments. The soon to be published Communications Capabilities Development Programme is expected to force internet service providers to store details of when and where emails are sent and by whom.

A Quieter SOPA

According to Mashable writer Alex Fitzpatrick, Cispa is more like the Patriot Act. "While SOPA was labeled as a threat to free speech, CISPA has been criticized as a threat to online privacy — and that’s why it’s well on its way to passing without attracting mainstream attention."

What Do You Think?

Already the Twittersphere is buzzing with the #cispa hashtag. We are living in interesting times. Do you have a strong opinion one way or the other on online privacy, surveillance, Cispa? I'd love to read your comments, or connect with me @tammykfennell.

[Update: Since this piece was published the vote for CISPA in the House was accelerated and passed. It now moves to the Senate. You can read the full Bill here.)