Thursday, March 14, 2019

How MBIE spies on people

Back in January, we learned that MBIE staff were being trained in using fake social media profiles to spy on people. This raised a number of issues around surveillance, freedom of expression, unreasonable searches and human rights, and so I sent an OIA request to MBIE seeking copies of this training material. They refused to provided it, but they did provide a copy of their social media guidelines, which are disturbing enough. MBIE staff will use Google to stalk you. They will log on to Facebook or LinkedIn to access information not shared with the general public, which is beginning to get intrusive. Worse, they will use false personas to perform passive searches, or even for "active engagement" (talking to people), suggesting they are not just accessing private, friends-locked or closed group information for which there is a reasonable expectation of privacy, but also raising the possibility that they are attempting to manipulate public opinion or group actions. Which pretty heavily engages both the freedom of expression and freedom from unreasonable search issues the Law Commission expressed concern about.

Looking at a similar request sent via FYI, MBIE won't say who in their organisation is receiving this training or what it is being used for. Nor will they say whether they seek warrants or production orders to access this private information. Which is pretty dubious. The use of search warrants is the exercise of a statutory power, and there can be no justification for refusing such an abstract query. But the fact that they don't want to tell us tells us what the answer is: they don't, meaning any use of information harvested by such methods is potentially unlawful.

(And yes, in accordance with the "if in doubt, complain" principle, I am complaining about the response on a number of grounds, and have advised the FYI requester on some arguments for their request as well).