Civil lib­er­ties group raises its con­cerns over use of false Face­book ac­counts by coun­cils


NORTH Wales coun­cils have been slammed for us­ing fake Face­book pro­files to ob­tain in­for­ma­tion from peo­ple’s so­cial me­dia ac­counts dur­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

Gwynedd and Den­bighshire have used ‘pseu­do­nym’ pro­files to “ob­tain in­tel­li­gence and other in­for­ma­tion” which could be used as part of probes they were car­ry­ing out.

Conwy said it had al­lowed of­fi­cers to use so­cial me­dia as part of in­ves­ti­ga­tions, but of­fi­cers did so un­der their own pro­files.

But the covert tac­tics have been con­demned by lead­ing civil lib­er­ties group Big Brother Watch, who said the prac­tice was “shock­ing”.

The coun­cils said the use of such meth­ods was only in cases where they were in­ves­ti­gat­ing po­ten­tial il­le­gal ac­tiv­ity, and that they fol­lowed the let­ter of the law in do­ing so.

Big Brother Watch said a huge amount of per­sonal in­for­ma­tion was shared on sites like Face­book and other so­cial me­dia plat­forms, “much of it is only in­tended for our fam­ily and friends”.

A spokesman added: “It is shock­ing that lo­cal au­thor­i­ties are in­trud­ing th­ese spa­ces by pre­tend­ing to be some­one else and even train­ing staff in such covert mea­sures.

“Not only would much in­for­ma­tion on so­cial me­dia be ir­rel­e­vant to lo­cal au­thor­i­ties, but in­ac­cu­rate pro­fil­ing based on this pri­vate and per­sonal in­for­ma­tion could have a sig­nif­i­cant detri­men­tal im­pact on peo­ple’s lives.

“Treat­ing so­cial me­dia as an open source in­tel­li­gence data­base, even if in­di­vid­u­als have switched their set- tings to pri­vate mode, is a shame­ful prac­tice that likely in­ter­feres with peo­ple’s right to a pri­vate life.”

Gwynedd coun­cil said it had used one covert pro­file, while Conwy said its use of covert tac­tics did not stretch to fake ac­counts, with of­fi­cers us­ing their own pro­files.

Flintshire coun­cil of­fi­cers have re­ceived train­ing on how to use th­ese sorts of ac­counts, but hadn’t used them yet, and Wrex­ham coun­cil wouldn’t say ei­ther way. An­gle­sey coun­cil did not re­spond. A Gwynedd coun­cil spokesman said: “The Coun­cil is re­spon­si­ble for en­forc­ing a range of leg­is­la­tion and has a duty to in­ves­ti­gate cases where there is an al­leged breach of the law.

“The coun­cil uses the ap­pro­pri­ate meth­ods avail­able to es­tab­lish whether there is ev­i­dence of non-com­pli­ance and if it is in the pub­lic in­ter­est to take en­force­ment ac­tion.

“The method used to gather in­for­ma­tion and ev­i­dence will de­pend on the na­ture of the al­le­ga­tion.

“There are var­i­ous in­ves­tiga­tive meth­ods avail­able, in­clud­ing covert in­ves­ti­ga­tions with the use of on­line plat­forms, which the coun­cil un­der­takes in ac­cor­dance with all rel­e­vant reg­u­la­tions. Such meth­ods can be used by the coun­cil in car­ry­ing out its du­ties in re­la­tion to Trad­ing Stan­dards, for in­stance to in­ves­ti­gate the al­leged sale of il­le­gal or coun­ter­feit goods.”

Den­bighshire Coun­cil use eight pro­files, with one of them be­ing a pseu­do­nym ac­count.

The coun­cil con­firmed the un­der­cover pro­file is used by Trad­ing Stan­dards and ad­mit­ted one of­fi­cer from this depart­ment had re­ceived train­ing in how to use th­ese types of ac­counts for an in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

They only used one Face­book ac­count to gather in­for­ma­tion, in the of­fi­cer’s own name, and no con­tact has ever been made with sus­pects.

Of­fi­cers from Flintshire coun­cil have re­ceived train­ing on the use of covert pro­files to as­sist with fu­ture in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

An­drew Far­row, Chief Of­fi­cer Plan­ning, En­vi­ron­ment and Eco­nomic Devel­op­ment, said: “Face­book has in­creas­ingly been used by traders to sell il­licit goods, in­clud­ing coun­ter­feit goods.

“This is a crim­i­nal of­fence which can have sen­tences for up to 10 years in prison. County Coun­cil Trad­ing Stan­dards Ser­vices have a duty to in­ves­ti­gate sales of coun­ter­feit goods, on the high street or over the in­ter­net.

“Sales of coun­ter­feit goods through Face­book can come to our at­ten­tion ei­ther through com­plaints from the pub­lic or traders or from on­line vis­its to sell­ing sites.

“The sell­ing sites we have in­ves­ti­gated so far are open sites that have not re­quired a ‘friend’ re­quest to join.

“We have not used a fake pro­file to try and ‘friend’ some­one to get ac­cess to their Face­book page, but of­fi­cers have re­ceived train­ing in such meth­ods of in­ves­ti­ga­tion as this may be re­quired in a fu­ture in­ves­ti­ga­tion.”

Conwy said it had not set up fake pro­files to ac­cess in­for­ma­tion, and said it used so­cial me­dia ac­counts “only to view that which is avail­able within a pro­file”, pre­fer­ring other meth­ods of in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

A spokesman for the coun­cil added: “We don’t use Face­book as a mat­ter of course, but if there is a pub­lic pro­file page and it is brought to our at­ten­tion then we will look as part of in­ves­ti­ga­tions. How­ever, Face­book is not used as de­fin­i­tive ev­i­dence; there are al­ter­na­tive ways that we ob­tain in­for­ma­tion such as legally bind­ing In­for­ma­tion Gath­er­ing No­tices.

Wrex­ham coun­cil didn’t re­spond to the Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion re­quest logged through the WhatDoTheyKnow web­site, say­ing they were “not in a po­si­tion to con­firm nor deny that the in­for­ma­tion re­quested is held or not”.

When asked for fur­ther comment, they re­it­er­ated their stance. A spokesman for the coun­cil said: “Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act re­quires the lo­cal au­thor­ity to in­form a re­quester whether it holds the in­for­ma­tion spec­i­fied in the re­quest. This is known as ‘the duty to con­firm or deny’.

“How­ever, there are oc­ca­sions when com­ply­ing with the duty to con­firm or deny un­der sec­tion 1(1)(a) of the act would in it­self dis­close sen­si­tive or po­ten­tially dam­ag­ing in­for­ma­tion that falls un­der an ex­emp­tion.

“There­fore the lo­cal au­thor­ity are not in a po­si­tion to con­firm nor deny that the in­for­ma­tion re­quested is held or not.”

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