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 article aims to find a way to manage the significant pressures of establishing policy along with enabling practitioners to use SOCMINT in their day to day work. It also questions the interactions of the state and private companies in line with the interest of society, business, and the imperatives of security.23 It states that the lack of a regulatory framework intensifies complexities.

There is limited academic research about New Zealand perspectives of SOCMINT, and what there is derives from government agencies. The Office of the Privacy Commissioner (OPC) provides insights into public perceptions about privacy in a 2011 study. It reveals the public’s willingness to use social media is based on their having autonomy and control over who sees their data.24 This need for control suggests government agencies may have difficulty in implementing policies if they do not meet public expectations. In 2018, the OPC conducted a survey about perspectives of privacy in a general sense.25 The study showed that people are concerned about their privacy and feel vulnerable when sharing personal information over social media. However, there remain gaps in understanding what this means for practices of agencies undertaking SOCMINT collections. Media and political discourse further indicate an appetite for a better understanding of SOCMINT and covert social media use by government agencies.26 The public scrutiny surrounding social media intelligence suggests a need for further research and understanding of the topic.

In an interview in 2018, in response to the SSC inquiry about the Thompson and Clarke case, the Privacy Commissioner (John Edwards) expressed a hope that there will be an improvement in SOCMINT type activities across government, noting an apparent lack of oversight for policy in government agencies.27 Edwards also states that when agencies step across the line into pre-emptive intelligence gathering on citizens who are exercising their democratic right to freedom of expression, there is a need for a “brighter light”. In other words, more public scrutiny is required to shine a light on gathering information from open and free areas. Edwards’ comments exemplify the gaps in the regulatory framework to help guide government policy outside the Privacy Act 1993, and the need for this gap to be filled.

The literature makes clear that there is limited understanding of how SOCMINT should be governed, partially driven from difficulties in defining whether social media information is sourced from a private or a public sphere. Inconsistent and underdeveloped structures for SOCMINT policy and legislation point to gaps in SOCMINT knowledge, opening up governments to intensified scrutiny from media and the public. A key gap is that there is no true understanding of public expectations of social media intelligence use, most likely because social media is a new tool. The lack of research into public expectations of and perspectives about government SOCMINT use suggests they have been undervalued as a means to influence future governance practices.