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East Herts Council reviews its rules for surveillance of residents in light of social media changes

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East Herts Council has formulated a new surveillance strategy after an Investigatory Powers Commissioner's Office inspector found the authority "had taken its eye off the ball".

She said the situation was critical as the authority's Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) policy had not been reviewed since 2010 and did not take into account changes in social media.

RIPA is the law governing the use of covert techniques by public authorities. It requires that when authorities, such as the police or Government departments, need to use covert techniques to obtain private information about someone, they do it in a way that is necessary, proportionate and compatible with human rights.

The new East Herts draft document updates the guidance for staff to ensure they stay on the right side of the law, improve record-keeping and reporting, and do not breach the privacy of people they are scrutinising for alleged offences.

It is due to be adopted by the executive on Tuesday (July 7) alongside a report specifically outlining social media rules for officers which will "go above and beyond what is required as a minimum so as to ensure that this ever-changing landscape is given the attention it deserves".

The report says: "By its very nature, social media accumulates a sizeable amount of information about a person's life, from daily routines to specific events. Their accessibility on mobile devices can also mean that a person's precise location at a given time may also be recorded whenever they interact with a form of social media on their devices.

"All of this means that incredibly detailed information can be obtained about a person and their activities like never before. Social media can therefore be a very useful tool when investigating alleged offences with a view to bringing a prosecution in the courts.

"However, there is a danger that the use of social media can be abused, which would have an adverse effect, damaging potential prosecutions and possibly leaving the council open to complaints or legal proceedings itself."

In particular the use of Facebook, Twitter and other platforms to investigate potential offences risks tipping from legitimate scrutiny to unauthorised surveillance and a breach of a person's right to privacy under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act.

For example, instances of repeated or regular monitoring of social media accounts, as opposed to one-off viewing, may require RIPA authorisation.

The report also makes a distinction about how individuals post on social media and how that can be viewed by council staff.

"Those individuals with public profiles who operate on social media without any, or only limited, forms of privacy settings being activated do so at their own risk," it says.

"By setting their profile to private, a user does not allow everyone to access and use their content, and respect should be shown to that person's right to privacy."

But there is a caveat: "This does not, however, extend to instances where a third party takes it upon themselves to share information which originated on a private profile on their own social media profile.

"For example, Person A publicises on their private social media page that they intend to throw a party, at which they will be selling alcohol and providing other forms of licensable activities despite not having a licence from the council to do so.

"Person B, who 'follows' Person A's social media page, republishes this information on their public social media page. The information on Person A's profile cannot be used, however the same information on Person B's profile can."

In practice, this means that photos, video or any other relevant information posted by individuals and businesses to a public profile on any platform can be viewed, recorded and used as evidence against them should the matter end in legal proceedings.

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