UK police to track suspects via social networks

Britain's Metropolitan Police Force has bought software designed to track suspects' activity, logging their movements and tracking who they're talking to by collating information from social networking sites, mobile phones, GPS and other sources.

GeoTime, developed by US company Oculus, tracks targets by collecting information about their social networking activity, mobile phone use and collating it together with data on financial transactions and IP address logs. Users can visualise the snooping data by using a timeline and animated display, which maps the suspect's relationships in the form of a 3D network.

The Met has confirmed it has purchased the software, which is already in use by the US military, but declined to rule out using it to investigate public order offences, the UK's Guardian newspaper reported today.

Alex Hanff, the campaigns manager of Privacy International, told The Guardian: "Once millions and millions of pieces of microdata are aggregated, you end up with this very high-resolution picture of somebody, and this is effectively what they are doing here."

Lawyers and human rights campaigners have expressed concern that the software could be used to monitor innocent parties such as protesters, in breach of data protection laws.

Hugh Tomlinson QC, a barrister specialising in privacy issues, says that public bodies such as the police must be able to justify the lawfulness of their data collection.

"Storing data because it's potentially interesting or potentially useful is not good enough. There has got to be some specific justification," Tomlinson said.

The Met is the only UK police force to so far declare its intention to use GeoTime, but the software is also being trialled by the Ministry of Defence.