A Scottish council is under fire after a recent policy paper was found to contain clauses justifying the use of fake Facebook profiles for surveillance purposes.
The council of East Lothian, which borders Edinburgh, released a nine page document entitled "Surveillance Through Social Media Policy", which outlined guidelines for local government employees to use social media to carry out covert investigations and even justified them "entering into a personal relationship with the third party/group member."
According to the Edinburgh Evening News, the document states that:
“In some circumstances, it may be necessary for East Lothian Council employees, in the course of their duties, to access social media websites either by creating covert identities or through the officer’s private or departmental identity.”
Predictably, the East Lothian Council played down accusations of widespread snooping:
“This is not a particularly frequent activity. We are looking at around three RIPS a year and this year so far there have been none,” said Head of Council Resources Jim Lamond at a cabinet meeting, as reported by the East Lothian Courier.
The council added that Facebook was merely used as an 'example' in the document because it was the most commonly recognised social network.
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However, civil liberties activists and human rights experts appear to be unconvinced, saying the legislation raises serious "questions marks", while fellow politicians called it "beyond creepy".
Header image credit: Global Panorama
Exercising its right of reply, East Lothian Council has issued us with the following statement:
The article ‘Forget the 'Snooper's Charter, this UK council is using fake Facebook profiles to spy on you’ is both inaccurate and misleading. Far from using fake Facebook profiles – East Lothian Council has never used such methods and this week confirmed it has no intention to do so. It is somewhat ironic that a public declaration of both past application and future intention of RIPSA permitted powers has resulted in a completely false interpretation.
East Lothian Council detailed in a public paper the full powers available to all Scottish councils under current RIPSA legislation. Following advice provided by the Scrutiny Commissioner to update, taking into account social media, the policy was debated at a public Cabinet meeting on Tuesday. The meeting heard that the use of fake social media accounts had never been undertaken at the council and, following cross party approval, the decision was taken that it would never be used.
Unfortunately a local paper chose to inaccurately report this matter and rather than checking the facts of the matter this inaccuracy has continued to be reproduced as ‘fact’.
For those interested in finding out more about East Lothian Council’s Data Protection, Freedom of Information and RIPSA policies please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Is the use of social media as a covert surveillance tool justified? Let us know where you stand in the comments below.