Maintaining Social Licence for Government Use of False Social Media Personas

Authors: Cleaver, O. & Nicklin, G.
Published in National Security Journal, 12 June 2020

Further research might consider whether the auditing and overarching policy for agencies should be managed by SSC because of that organisation’s involvement in social media intelligence gathering reviews. Future research might also consider if an auditing and governing capability would be better suited to another government agency, focused on digital security requirements.

Agencies’ Policies

The policies on covert social media were requested from MBIE and New Zealand Police (Police) via the Official Information Act to assess whether these agencies’ activities align with the public expectations revealed in the survey. Key areas of inquiry were how agency policies addressed the issues of proportionality and overall social licence.

MBIE’s 2018 social media policy document shows that MBIE considers the use of social media information collection to be a high risk, and that its use needs to be proportionate.41 Privacy and risk considerations feature strongly. The document directly references the Privacy Act 1993, stating that collection of information must be done lawfully and in a manner that does not unreasonably intrude. It also states that the collection of information is necessary for the lawful purpose connected to the function of the agency. The document further reinforces that staff must be able to evidence these requirements and clearly document intent in case of challenge or audit. These requirements meet what OPC considers a reasonable expectation of privacy and mostly reflect the perspectives outlined in the survey results.

However, the document is strongly focused on reputational risk and privacy and does not address the necessity of SOCMINT use, nor how to ensure public safety. As MBIE represents an amalgamation of 17 regulatory bodies responsible for their own practices, the definition of proportionality might also differ from body to body.

The Police provided sections of their undated social media policy document42 and a covert backstopping policy.43 The social media policy document focuses on social media for overt and covert investigation. The latter part of the document emphasises the importance of integrity and procedures that are consistent, ethical and legal. The backstopping policy does not specifically mention “social media”, indicating its newness as an information gathering platform.

The Police policy documents fail to specifically discuss privacy and proportionality. However, proportionality can be inferred from their focus on the public safety goals of their organisation. A portion of survey respondents believe that covert social media use should be a Police-only capability. These results suggest Police may enjoy a level of public trust and confidence in their activities that afford them less public scrutiny of social media intelligence actions than for other government agencies. Even so, these attitudes do not exempt the Police from, or may even reinforce the need for, having adequate policies and procedures in order to maintain that trust and confidence.