‘Worrying overreach’ – a new name, but ministers bat off familiar questions over anti-disinformation unit

After reports it had monitored citizens’ posts criticising government, the Counter Disinformation Unit has been renamed the National Security Online Information Unit – but still faces questions over lack of scrutiny

Despite a recent rebrand, government’s core anti-disinformation unit continues to face questions and criticisms regarding its work and the opacity of its operations.

First established in the early days of the coronavirus crisis, the Counter Disinformation Unit was recently – and rather prosaically – rechristened as the National Security Online Information Team (NSOIT). In the days and weeks leading up to the rebrand, the unit had been the subject of controversy surrounding reports that it had monitored and flagged for deletion posts – including from senior Conservative, Labour and Green politicians – that were not inaccurate, but merely critical of government policy.

Ministers have repeatedly poured cold water on such claims – and are still doing so.

In response to repeated questions about the matter in parliament this week, Viscount Camrose – a junior minister in the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, which houses NSOIT, said: “I can confirm not only that it is not the role of NSOIT or the CDU to go after any individuals, regardless of their political belief, but that it never has been. NSOIT looks for large-scale attempts to pollute the information environment, generally as a result of threats from foreign states. I am happy to say in front of the House that the idea that its purpose is also to go after, in some ways, those who disagree politically with the government is categorically false.”

Pressed for more detail on NSOIT, the minister said that “information on NSOIT is posted on GOV.UK” – although this does not appear to be the case.

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The minister also faced questions from several peers about the level of scrutiny NSOIT is subjected to. This included inquiries from Lord Strasburger – who claimed that previous reports about the unit’s work “exposed worrying overreach”, and asked Camrose to “explain why the government refuse to allow the Intelligence and Security Committee to oversee the work” of the anti-disinformation team.

“NSOIT is indeed scrutinised by ministers; it sits within DSIT and then ministers, as we see, come before this house to explain matters,” he said. “As a national security team, I dare say that we would have some concerns about a standing report to parliament about its activities, but I can continue to reassure the house on its role.”

The minister added: “As part of the civil service, NSOIT would have robust internal measures to verify and check its own work, and indeed it reports regularly across government and to ministers.”

Visccount Camrose would not be drawn on who staffs the unit nor how many people it employs, but did respond to queries on these details by stating that it “comprises civil servants who sit within DSIT, and it occasionally makes use of external consulting services; it adjusts its size and membership from within the DSIT team according to the nature of the threat at any given moment”.

He added: “It is a national security institution and, as such, the government have a strong preference for not allowing it openly to share national security information for fear of benefiting those who wish us harm.”

PublicTechnology’s own attempts to find out more about the unit via Freedom of Information requests were declined, on the grounds of a need to protect government’s “relationship with social media platforms”, as well as a desire to “preserve a ‘safe space’ around ministers and government officials”.

Sam Trendall

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