Monitor social media of young offenders to prevent crime, says watchdog

Snapchat app.

The social media of young offenders who pose a risk to others should be monitored to prevent crime, the probation watchdog has suggested.

In a report published on Thursday, HM Inspectorate of Probation found that in one in four cases examined by its staff, the young person’s use of social media was directly related to the offence they committed.

It said crimes were now “planned in bedrooms rather than on street corners”. Dame Glenys Stacey, the chief inspector of probation, said youth offending teams needed help to address this shift in methodology.

She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Thursday: “Many of the young people actually shun Facebook and other media that we’re all familiar with in favour of lesser-known, more private media and we found offence scenarios inconceivable even a few years ago, with social media used both to incite and plan crime.

“And our case is that youth justice workers are doing a very good job but they really need some help to catch up and they need to know whether or not they can monitor this social media use and to what extent and how do they do that.”

Asked whether that could involve monitoring of private, encrypted messages on platforms such as WhatsApp and Snapchat, Stacey said lawyers needed to decide “what the line would be”. However, they had already advised the inspectorate that “proportionate monitoring” was allowed, she added.

Some youth offending teams were already monitoring the social media of the young people under their care but were unclear where they stood legally, Stacey said.

A privacy campaign group has expressed concerns about the proposal.

Griff Ferris, researcher at Big Brother Watch, said: “We support the view that youth offending teams need to have more support in dealing with harmful uses of social media. However, monitoring young people’s social media in some sort of ‘pre-crime’ approach is entirely disproportionate and potentially an extreme intrusion into their privacy. Any attempt to monitor private communications on encrypted apps such as WhatsApp would require breaking encryption, which as we know would involve breaking encryption for all and making us all vulnerable to cybercrime.”

The inspectors’ report, The Work of Youth Offending Teams to Protect the Public,examined 115 files on cases where youths had committed violent, sexual or other offences. It found there had been a generational shift, with young people now living increasingly in an online world which many adults barely understand. It also described social media as the catalyst for some of the most serious and violent crimes offences its staff encountered.

Among the examples it highlighted were arguments and personal abuse starting on social media leading to physical assaults in the street or on public transport; young people being blackmailed online using indecent images; and gangs posting videos to appeal for members, stake their territory or issue challenges to other gangs.

The report suggested that youth offending managers in London were “more in tune” with the link between social media and gangs due to strategies to tackle gang violence in the capital.

It said that social media offered clues about what was happening in people’s lives and so should be used by youth offending teams, which were otherwise doing a good job, according to the report.

“There is also a strong case for monitoring the social media output of young people who pose a risk to others so as to protect others sufficiently well,” writes Stacey.

The report also concluded that the public could be better protected from dangerous and violent young offenders if adults working with them were trained to understand the often extreme trauma in their childhoods.

Mental health experts told inspectors that many young people under supervision had experienced post-traumatic stress (PTSD).