A former cabinet minister who claims to have been spied on by a specialised information operations Army brigade has pressed the government for answers on who authorised the unit to monitor the activities of UK citizens.
A report recently published by privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch and the Mail on Sunday revealed that the 77th Brigade had been tasked with studying – and, in some cases, flagging for removal – posts made online about the Covid pandemic and the government’s response.
The brigade was one of several anti-disinformation units that, according to the exposé, flagged or recorded posts made by UK citizens that contained no factual inaccuracies – but were simply critical of government policy.
Among those whose posts were thus surveilled were journalists, and MPs from both the Labour and Conservative parties – including former cabinet minister David Davis.
In a written parliamentary question filed immediately about the revelations about the 77th Brigade – which government representatives have previously indicated only conducts operations outside the UK – Davis asked the Ministry of Defence “which minister or official authorised the brigade to collect data related to public statements, social media and internet activity as part of its work”.
An answer to this question was conspicuous by its absence from the response provided by Armed Forces minister James Heappey.
“77th Brigade was created in 2015 and conducts information operations, including information activity and outreach, across a range of disciplines,” Heappey said.
“This includes collecting, creating, and disseminating digital and wider media content in support of designated tasks. Like many Armed Forces units, 77th Brigade supported the national response to the Covid-19 pandemic and provided support to the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport, who were working to counter disinformation.”
Davis had previously asked on the floor of the Commons whether government will “review the issue and ensure that… guidelines” for the brigade to “operate only against foreign powers and extremists” have been followed.
Defence secretary Ben Wallace responded: “I have already instructed that we not only look into the story but check that the instructions that I issued after a visit were carried out.”
Sam Trendall is editor of CSW's sister title PublicTechnology, where this story first appeared