- Investigating officers at East Lothian Council granted powers to use fake accounts to befriend targets and scour social media pages
- Similar powers to monitor social network sites usually only used by police
- Policy branded ‘beyond creepy’ and questions raised over privacy issues
- Council says it has not created false profiles and does not intend to but was obliged to consider the policy
Human rights campaigners are furious after council officials granted themselves the powers to spy on law-abiding residents using fake Facebook profiles.
A new policy has enabled ‘investigating officers’ at East Lothian Council to use false Facebook identities to befriend ‘targets’ and scour social media pages not protected by privacy settings.
The nine-page ‘surveillance through social media policy’ agreed by officials has been branded ‘beyond creepy’ by critics who have questioned whether it infringes privacy rights.
The council says it has never used such powers, and is unlikely to do so, but needed to create a policy enabling this to take place should it be required.
Human rights lawyers and civil liberties groups have blasted the move, describing it as a sign that powers normally only used by police were spreading into other areas.
They warned that councils could now use Facebook to snoop on their own employees and spy on people who have done nothing wrong.
Jason Hadden MBE, a barrister and expert on human rights and social media, said the policy raised ‘question marks’ about the right to privacy and the right to a family life under article eight of the European Convention on Human Rights.
‘I can understand why individuals might become nervous about how these powers might be used,’ he said.
Daniel Nesbitt, research director of Big Brother Watch, said the council needs to say why these tactics are necessary, why they think they are proportionate and what safeguards will be in place
A new policy has enabled ‘investigating officers’ at East Lothian Council, which is based in this building in Haddington, to use false Facebook identities to befriend ‘targets’ and scour social media pages not protected by privacy settings
He added: ‘For years now councils have been criticised for using heavy-handed snooping tactics, and a nine-page document simply isn’t good enough.’
Jason Rose, who stood for the Greens in the East Lothian constituency in last year’s Westminster elections said the policy was ‘beyond creepy’.
‘I cannot believe our councillors have agreed this policy. It speaks volumes that a council which is so poor at communicating with the public and does not make its meetings available to view online agrees a covert surveillance policy in such a secretive way,’ he said.
The new East Lothian policy also allows investigators to use social media to enter into a ‘personal relationship’ with a third party or group member.
The document states: ‘In some circumstances, it may be necessary for East Lothian Council employees, in the course of their duties, to access social media websites either by creating covert identities or through the officer’s private or departmental identity.’
It adds: ‘There are three different ways in which social media websites may be accessed by council officers to carry out investigations: Using the officer’s private social media account; Through an identity created specifically as the department’s representative; Through a covert identity using a false name.’
The document doesn’t give examples of why officials might want to snoop on Facebook users and whether the powers would be used for minor issues such as people using the wrong bin for their rubbish or more serious issues such as violent anti-social behaviour.
Faced with a mounting storm of criticism, the council claimed today that it was ‘highly unlikely’ to use the powers – but was obliged to consider them as part of its response to the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA).
A spokesman said: ‘Although East Lothian Council has never used covert identities for social media as part as an investigation, and is highly unlikely to do so, a policy must be put in place to include all eventualities even if they are not used.
‘Creating false identities would undergo even more rigorous testing and will not ever be used by East Lothian Council – it is a provision aimed at the police.’
She said the policy was discussed at a council cabinet meeting on Tuesday, and added that the council had been advised by the UK Surveillance Commissioner that it must consider social media monitoring as part of the RIPA legislation, which was passed in 2000 and allows Scottish authorities to trawl through phone calls, emails and website visits.
Councillors had agreed during the meeting that the snooping powers would not be used, she added.
However, written minutes of the meeting will not be available online until the beginning of next week.
While it is meant to be used for detecting serious crime such as drugs and prostitution, councils have used RIPA powers for investigations into fake diet pills, counterfeit cigarettes, fraudulent use of a blue badge and a fake personal injury.
It was revealed last year that very few council investigations using RIPA powers led to criminal penalties or convictions.
In 2012, Argyll and Bute Council came under fire when its communications chief, Jo Smith, admitted using fake social media accounts to monitor what people were saying online about the council.
She was later sacked for bringing the council into disrepute before being given a payout days before the start of an employment tribunal into her dismissal.
Ms Smith denied any wrongdoing and was found to have not created the accounts while at work during a council investigation.