On the ground | Privacy and data protection | Privacy and confidentiality

UK: Stop social media monitoring by local authorities

Would you like your local government to judge you by your Facebook activity? In a recent study, we investigated how local authorities (Councils) in Great Britain are looking at social media accounts as part of their investigation tactics on issues such as benefits, debt recovery, fraud, environmental investigations, and children’s social care.

By Privacy International (guest author) · June 10, 2020

Would you like your local government to judge you by your Facebook activity? In a recent study, we investigated how local authorities (Councils) in Great Britain are looking at social media accounts as part of their investigation tactics on issues such as benefits, debt recovery, fraud, environmental investigations, and children’s social care.

Social media platforms are a vast trove of information about individuals and collectives, including their personal preferences, political and religious views, physical and mental health and the identity of their friends and families. Social media monitoring or social media intelligence (SOCMINT) are the techniques and technologies that allow the monitoring and gathering of information on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

Life-changing decisions could be made on the basis of this intelligence but yet no quality check on the effectiveness of this form of surveillance is in place as of now. This has particular consequences and a disproportionate negative impact on certain individuals and communities.

What PI found out

In October 2019 Privacy International sent a Freedom of Information request to every local authority in Great Britain asking not only about whether they had conducted an audit, but sought to uncover the extent to which ‘overt’ social media monitoring in particular was being used and for what local authority functions.

We have analysed 136 responses to our Freedom of Information requests, specifically those that were received by November 2019. All responses are publicly available on the platform “What Do They Know”.

Our investigation has found that:

  • A significant number of local authorities are now using ‘overt’ social media monitoring as part of their intelligence gathering and investigation activities. This substantially out-paces the use of  ‘covert’ social media monitoring
  • If you don’t have good privacy settings, your data is fair game for overt social media monitoring.
  • There is no quality check on the effectiveness of this form of surveillance on decision making.
  • Your social media profile could be used by a local authority, without your knowledge or awareness, in a wide variety of their functions; predominantly intelligence gathering and investigations.

The UK Surveillance Commissioner’s Guidance defines overt social media monitoring as looking at ‘open source’ data, that is, publicly available data, and data where privacy settings are available but not applied. This may include: “List of other users with whom an individual shares a connection (friends/followers); Users’ public posts: audio, images, video content, messages; “likes”, shared posts and events”. According to the Guidance, “[r]epetitive examination/monitoring of public posts as part of an investigation” constitutes instead ‘covert’ monitoring and “must be subject to assessment.”

Who is being targeted?

Everyone is potentially targeted as at some point in our lives we all interact with local authorities as we go through some of the processes listed above. The difference, however, is that we all are affected differently.

As in many other instances when it comes to the digitalisation and use of new technologies, those belonging to already marginalised and precarious groups and who are already subject to additional monitoring and surveillance, are once again experiencing the brunt of such practices.

There are particular groups of the populations which are being impacted dramatically by the use of such techniques because they are dependent and subject to the functions of local authorities such as individuals receiving social assistance/welfare as well as migrants.

We have seen similar developments in the migration sector where for immigration enforcement purposes governments are resorting to social media intelligence. Some of these activities are undertaken directly by government themselves but in some instances, governments are calling on companies to provide them with the tools and/or know-how to undertake these sort of activities.

How to protect those most vulnerable

As local authorities in Great Britain and elsewhere seize on the opportunity to use this treasure trove of information about individuals, use of social media by local authorities is set to rise and in the future we are likely to see more sophisticated tools used to analyse this data, automate decision-making, generate profiles and assumptions.

The collection and processing of personal data obtained from social media as part of local authority investigations and intelligence gathering, must be strictly necessary and proportionate to make a fair assessment of an individual. There needs to be effective oversight over the use of social media monitoring, both overt and covert, to ensure that particular groups of people are not disproportionately affected, and where violations of guidance and policies do occur, they are effectively investigated and sanctioned.

It is urgent to ensure that the necessary and adequate safeguards are in place to protect those in the most vulnerable and precarious positions where such information could lead to tragic life altering decisions such as the denial of welfare support.

Therefore, we urge local authorities to:

  • Refrain from using social media monitoring, and avoid it entirely where they do not have a clear, publicly accessible policy regulating this activity

When exceptionally used:

  • Local authorities should use social media monitoring only if and when in compliance with their legal obligations, including data protection and human rights.
  • Every time a local authority employee views a social media platform, this is recorded in an internal log including, but not limited to, the following information:
    • Date/time of viewing, including duration of viewing of a single page
    • Reason/justification for viewing and/or relevance to internal investigation
    • Information obtained from social platform
    • Why it was considered that the viewing was necessary
    • Pages saved and where saved to

  • Local authorities should develop internal policies creating audit mechanisms, including:
    • The availability of a designated staff member to address queries regarding the prospective use of social media monitoring, as well as her/his contact details;
    • A designated officer to review the internal log at regular intervals, with the power to issue internal recommendations

Whilst we may post publicly, we don’t expect local authorities to look at our photos and screenshot our thoughts, and use this without our knowledge to make decisions that could have serious consequences on our life.

The growing intrusion by government authorities’ – without a public and parliamentary debate – also risks impacting what people say online, leading to self-censorship, with the potential deleterious effect on free speech. We may have nothing to hide, but if we know our local authority is looking at our social media accounts, we are likely to self-censor.

Social media platforms should not be reframed as spaces for the state to freely gather information about us and treat people as suspects.

Read more:

When Local Authorities aren’t your Friends (24.05.2020)

Social Media Monitoring Freedom of Information Act Request to Local Authorities (24.05.2020)

The use of social media monitoring by local authorities – who is a target? (24.05.2020)

Is your Local Authority looking at your Facebook likes? (01.05.2020)

Social Media Monitoring – a batch request (07.10.2019)

Social Media Intelligence (23.10.2017)

Security Through Human Rights: New Liberties Report (18.10.2017)

(Contribution by Antonella Napolitano from EDRi member Privacy International)