Maintaining Social Licence for Government Use of False Social Media Personas

Authors: Cleaver, O. & Nicklin, G.1

Published in National Security Journal, 12 June 2020

Download full PDF version – Maintaining Social Licence for Government Use of False Social Media Personas (523KB)


Governmental collection of unprotected information from social media platforms via social media intelligence (SOCMINT) techniques enable the detection and prevention of unlawful and malicious activity for law enforcement purposes. Relatively new, these techniques have come under public scrutiny. Recognised as valuable tools for security, law enforcement and regulatory agencies, how government SOCMINT policies align with public expectations is less clear. This article addresses the gap by comparing New Zealand public expectations about the use of false social media personas as a SOCMINT technique with government policies. 248 individuals were surveyed, establishing initial understandings of public expectations. Findings were compared with policies of key oversight agencies – the State Services Commission and Privacy Commission. This article argues that to maintain social licence, governments using false social media personas need to appropriately balance public protection with personal privacy interests. Transparent policy frameworks are needed to maintain trust and confidence in SOCMINT governance.

Keywords: SOCMINT, Social Media Policy, Facebook, False Personas, Social Licence, Privacy, Public Expectations, Trust and Confidence, Security, Intelligence



Governmental use of information from social media platforms for law enforcement purposes is relatively new. As such, this use has come under scrutiny in New Zealand in recent years, highlighting new challenges for the privacy of personal information. For example, the State Services Commission’s 2018 inquiry into the use of external security consultants Thompson and Clark1 noted that the use of false social media personas was a breach of reasonable expectations of privacy.2 These personas are fictional profiles created to protect the identity of staff undertaking SOCMINT collections.


1 Olivia Cleaver is a student in the Master of International Security degree programme at Massey University; Dr Germana Nicklin is a Senior Lecturer in the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at Massey University, Wellington. Contact: