UK Spies encouraged to watch Twitter

Sir Gus O'Donnel

Sir Gus O’Donnel


The UK’s top civil servant, Sir Gus O’Donnell urged intelligence agencies to track social networking sites more closely.

Sir Gus O’Donnell was questioned about the UK’s current intelligence-gathering methods during his evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry into the 2003 Iraq invasion. The issue would be examined as part of a assessment of government intelligence “machinery” due by the summer, he said.

The cabinet secretary, and head of Civil Service since 2005, told the Iraq inquiry that recent events in Egypt showed the value of “open source” intelligence as a barometer of opinion.

He was asked whether the Joint Intelligence Committee – which assesses raw material picked up by intelligence officers in the field and presents it to ministers – was able to “pick up” on popular protests organised through Facebook, Twitter and other social media.

“When you look at what is happening, as we speak, in Egypt… the use of the internet, the use of Twitter, the way protest movements develop, this is a different world,” he said. “We need to be tied in much more to that sort of world.”

As well as the current riots in Egypt, he cited the mass protests in Iran following the disputed 2009 presidential election as evidence that the internet has “profoundly changed” how protest movements form. “Individuals can come together in a way that in the past was more difficult,” he said.

There was a “massive amount” of information that was freely available, Sir Gus stressed, and the government’s listening post GCHQ had an vital role to play in “bringing this all together”.

“I have strongly and always been of the view that we probably underestimated open source [intelligence]. By its nature, the secret agencies tend to want to push the secret stuff. One of the questions I will be asking is, are we tapping into all of the best available information that is out there in an open sense?”

“The problem is that there is too much information. The issue is being able to find the things you need without being swamped which the things that are irrelevant… and then understanding the reliability of that information.”

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