Wednesday, January 09, 2019

More government spying

The Herald has disturbing news this morning: MBIE has recently signed a contract to train its staff in using fake social media profiles to spy on people:

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment has hired a security firm to increase staff skills in using fake social media profiles to gather intelligence.

Among the modules offered are harvesting information from social networks, creating back-stories for false online personae and creating dossiers on people and groups.

When informed of the training by the Herald, Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones said senior ministers would be briefed on the issue when they returned to work at the end of the month.

"Kiwis should be able to go about their daily business without the fear of bureaucrats peering into their social media," he said.

Jones is right. This sort of spying is intensely problematic. As highlighted in the Law Commission's Review of the Search and Surveillance Act 2012, simply using public information
has the potential to undermine the right to freedom of expression and other associated rights. It may discourage the public from engaging in debate and presenting opinions without fear of government interference. This is particularly likely if enforcement agencies use social media to monitor legitimate activity such as peaceful protest.

And that's just public information. Using fake profiles with detailed backstories suggests they are trying to capture people's private or friend-locked information, which is even more intrusive. But under the new "reasonable expectation of privacy" standard, it may also constitute a "search" under s21 of the Bill of Rights Act, and therefore be illegal without explicit statutory authority (which in turn, poses a legal threat to every case MBIE has used such information in). The Law Commission recommended that harvesting public information be covered by a statutory policy statement, setting out the purposes for which it could be done. They also suggested that using false profiles to access private, "friends-only" information be treated as a covert operation requiring a warrant. The fact that MBIE is doing this suggests we need such regulation as quickly as possible, to restrict such government spying to proper investigative purposes, rather than the current free-for-all.