Facebook policy gives council workers right to spy

FACEBOOK snooping powers which allow officials to create fake profiles have been granted by East Lothian Council.

Thursday, 12th May 2016, 5:27 am
Updated Thursday, 12th May 2016, 7:32 am
East Lothian Council officers are keeping a close eye on Facebook. Picture: Chris Jackson/Getty Images
East Lothian Council officers are keeping a close eye on Facebook. Picture: Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Under a new policy, “investigating officers” can use false identities to befriend “targets”.

The council insisted it would never create fake profiles and said it believed it was legally bound to include the measure in the policy.

It admitted officers could scour social media pages which were not protected by privacy settings to prevent and detect crime and for matters of public health and safety.

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However, the new nine-page “surveillance through social media policy” agreed by the council states: “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.”

Human rights lawyers and civil liberties groups have now expressed concerns that the move was a sign that powers normally only used by the police were spreading into other areas.

They warned that councils could use the powers to snoop on their own employees, to investigate potential fraudsters and to spy on vulnerable families.

Jason Hadden MBE, a barrister and expert on human rights and social media, said the policy raised “question marks” about the right to privacy and the right to a family life under article eight of the European Convention on Human Rights.

“I can understand why individuals might become nervous about how these powers might be used,” he added.

The new East Lothian policy added that investigators may use social media to enter into a “personal relationship” with a third party or group member.

But a council spokeswoman said the policy has been agreed within the context of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Scotland) Act and would not actually see staff creating fake profiles to spy on people.

She said: “The legislation was originally created for police and counter-terrorism but also applies to local authorities.

“Therefore, although East Lothian Council has never used covert identities for social media as part as an investigation, and is highly unlikely to do so, a policy must be put in place to include all eventualities even if they are not used.”

She later added: “Creating false identities would undergo even more rigorous testing and will not ever be used by East Lothian Council – it is a provision aimed at the police.

“As it is part of the law, however, it had to be included in the policy.”

Jason Rose, Scottish Greens campaigner for Musselburgh, branded East Lothian Council’s policy as “beyond creepy”.

He added: “I cannot believe our councillors have agreed this policy. It speaks volumes that a council which is so poor at communicating with the public and does not make its meetings available to view online agrees a covert surveillance policy in such a secretive way.”

Edinburgh, Midlothian and West Lothian councils all said they did not spy on people using social media.

Daniel Nesbitt, research director of Big Brother Watch, said the council needs to say why these tactics are necessary, why they think they are proportionate and what safeguards will be in place.

He added: “For years now councils have been criticised for using heavy-handed snooping tactics, and a nine-page document simply isn’t good enough.”