Maintaining Social Licence for Government Use of False Social Media Personas

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

The MBIE and Police documents align with the Privacy Act 1993 and State Sector Act 1988, and in a general sense indicate good practice for the use of covert social media. They take the use of covert social media seriously and have policies in place guiding its use. Nevertheless, the survey results point to several areas where these agencies could strengthen their social media policies. The first is transparency.44 More clarity is needed on balancing the need for the use of SOCMINT with the need for privacy. Second is that the fine line between privacy and proportionate use of covert social media personas is not addressed in the policies examined. One solution may be for agencies to outline how the use of covert social media meets their regulatory requirements, to ensure that the use is proportionate with the potential harm. Another could be to provide overarching, publicly available statements about the rationale for agencies’ social media use. How agencies can ensure activities are transparent, while meeting legal requirements and the demands of their regulatory purpose, requires considerable further research.


This article set out to discover public expectations about the use of covert social media use by government agencies in New Zealand. Indicative results suggest members of the public generally accept, and even expect, SOCMINT use by regulatory and enforcement agencies and consider it to be valuable.

However, SOCMINT use is growing fast and involves a delicate balancing of interests. This article has shown public concerns about transparency, privacy, proportionality and the fine line in balancing them need to be addressed in agencies’ policies. Internationally, SOCMINT is recognised as a valuable collection tool for law enforcement agencies to interpret the criminal and social environment and assist in preventing harm. Drawing on international research and practices, New Zealand government agencies can clearly argue the case for using covert use of false social media personas as part of their regulatory functions, in order to prevent harm and keep New Zealand safe. The survey results have shown that however justifiable the use, it can only be successful if the public whose social media use is being covertly tracked has trust and confidence in the agencies tracking them.

A key theme of these findings has been managing the fine line between protection versus privacy interests. The survey results indicate there is a social licence for government agency use of SOCMINT, with a public perception that agencies use it to assess increasing security threats and unlawful activity in New Zealand. Not using SOCMINT exposes agencies to the risk of being perceived as failing to protect the public. However, agencies must mediate SOCMINT use, including the use of false social media personas, with privacy requirements.