What The Times say is that the study they are referring to found ‘“surveillance” of Facebook accounts was common. Social workers used fake profiles to “friend” parents in cases where their posts were not publicly viewable. They watched parents’ relationships and behaviour, looking out for factors such as abusive partners or drug use.
Oddly, I’ve been able to find no trace of this study and it has been suggested that what is being referred to is some sort of leaked draft. No matter, the point is that it chimes with my own experience. Social workers do this stuff because it is a very effective way of seeing whether parents are walking the walk as well as talking the talk. You’d be surprised how often parents will insist that their lifestyle is all Little House on the Prairie, but their Facebook feed suggests it is rather more Kardashian (I don’t really know who the Kardashians are but I believe they have big bottoms and very exciting lifestyles). And of course parents/ex partners harvest and produce this stuff too when warring over children or divorce.
Many would say that if it’s on a public Facebook page it is fair game, and if it shows a child is at risk it should be admitted in evidence (and can you just stop complicating things please, Reed?). Those are reasonable perspectives. But just because something is a good idea or is a means to an end, doesn’t mean its lawful. And where it is the state gathering and using this material there is a pretty good chance that it isn’t lawful at all (parents need not panic this applies to situations where social workers are looking at and gathering data about private individuals).
So. The law. Do you have a caffeinated drink and a stress ball handy? Then I’ll begin. What follows is merely a sketch, not a comprehensive guide.
- Social workers are employed by local authorities. As such, when they are carrying out their job they are acting as agents for a public authority. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 regulates surveillance of private individuals (you and me) by public authorities (NB same probably also applies to CAFCASS guardians and reporting officers).
- The 2000 Act regulates this activity not by saying what is unlawful, but by providing a route to give authorisation for specific types of covert surveillance – it’s a piece of shield legislation. That is to say that if a public authority sticks to the requirements of the Act it is protected against claims under the Human Rights Act. If it doesn’t, it’s fair game and may find itself liable under various bits of law (tort, criminal, human rights, privacy etc etc). Unless of course some other law specifically authorises the activity.
- Surveillance ‘includes monitoring, observing or listening to persons, their movements, conversations or other activities and communications.’
- It’s ‘covert’ if it is carried out in ‘a manner calculated to ensure that any persons who are subject to the surveillance are unaware that it is or may be taking place’.
- RIPA divides covert surveillance into ‘directed’ or ‘intrusive’ surveillance. In short intrusive is surveillance of people’s homes and cars. Directed surveillance is surveillance that doesn’t qualify as ‘intrusive’, but is conducted for the purposes of a specific investigation and likely to result in the obtaining of private information about any person.