Maintaining Social Licence for Government Use of False Social Media Personas

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

Covert use of False Social Media Personas

SOCMINT is a form of intelligence that focuses on the collection and analysis of information produced and exchanged through social media networking sites.10 The use of false social media personas is a SOCMINT collection technique11 that enables organisations or states to scan and monitor social media networks in a covert manner.12 This technique is used in two main ways. The first, which is the subject of this article, is using false personas to reactively and non-invasively access information about a particular person – information that they have made visible to anyone with a social media login account. Persons under surveillance in this manner have no visibility of the false persona. The second is to use the false persona to gain access to a social media group. This involves the group members having visibility of and believing the false persona to be a real identity. The latter traverses deeper ethical considerations and requires extensive research in its own right.

Omand, a leading critical thinker in the field of SOCMINT, suggests that public institutions, including the police and intelligence services, have a responsibility to adapt to changing demands and culture; that SOCMINT collections are a part of this change and they provide necessary contributions to community safety and security.13 Much of the international literature draws on Omand, with a strong theme of the need for governance frameworks. Omand argues that SOCMINT use comes with the need for proportionality, balancing its use against public good. Importantly, Omand also argues that states may struggle to keep up with changing attitudes and habits if SOCMINT frameworks are not incorporated into state activities. What Omand’s work does not give weight to are public expectations and transparency about the use of SOCMINT. These omissions reflect a need for ongoing research and development on the topic, looking more broadly into expectations of use and how these are reflected in policy.

Governance of SOCMINT is complex and heavily debated. On the one hand, social media networking sites and the information they hold are privately owned;14 on the other, individuals may feel they, as users, have the right to control by whom and how their own information is accessed. This creates debates about whether data owned by social media companies is public or private. There is no clarity in law or practice on whether the information held on social media sites is public or private, creating uncertainty about rights to access and use information and data gathered.15 The ambiguity of private and public information rights creates complexities in governance of information collected from social media networking sites.

Edwards and Urquhart suggest citizens assume social media communications, for example, public posts, are open to being searched, and therefore not restricted to “Facebook friends”.16 Edwards and Urquhart argue that if the information is self-disclosed, it is open to being viewed and searched.