Research reveals Facebook surveillance 'normalised' by social work teams

Together we are Forbes


20 November, 2019

Lucy Harris

A 15-month participant study of social work and child protection practices in two local authorities in England has discovered the extent to which social workers use social media, particularly Facebook, to obtain information about service users' lives. The findings reveal that Facebook is used in different ways by workers, and has highlighted the lack of clear guidance on how social workers can lawfully and appropriately use social media for the purposes of social work and protecting children.

Different viewpoints

Social media sites provide simple, convenient and inexpensive methods for people to access masses of information about other people's lives. However, research suggests that there are differences between how social workers think about and use social media surveillance. For example, 54% of those interviewed searched Facebook to explore risk factors, 55% believed it was acceptable in some instances to conduct a search out of curiosity, almost half thought it was acceptable in some circumstances to create a fake Facebook account to interact with service users and 20% stated they had never used social media to look for information. Further, some social workers actively searched service users' Facebook accounts to obtain information, some opposed any use whatsoever and some were unwillingly drawn into acting on information presented to them by colleagues from Facebook.

The law

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 (as amended) ('RIPA 2000') regulates the surveillance of private individuals by public authorities by providing a route to give authorisation for specific types of covert surveillance. Surveillance includes monitoring, observing or listening to persons, their movements, conversations or other activities and it is '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 2000 divides covert surveillance into 'directed' or 'intrusive' surveillance. Intrusive is surveillance of people's homes and cars and directed is surveillance that doesn't qualify as 'intrusive', but is conducted for the purposes of a specific investigation and likely to result in obtaining private information about any person. Thus lots of things that social workers routinely do might amount to directed or intrusive surveillance. For example, a social worker sitting in their car around the corner from a family home waiting to see if the violent ex-partner turns up and is let in, a social worker arriving for a visit and listening from outside before ringing the bell or a social worker checking the Facebook profile of parents in a case to see what they are up to (relationship status, when they are out socialising, who they are friends with), making a note of these findings.

Under RIPA 2000, the viewing of social networking sites by social workers in an investigatory capacity once is not classed as surveillance, thus does not require RIPA authorisation. To contrast, repeatedly viewing social networking sites of service users' falls under the definition of directed surveillance. Under RIPA 2000, a local authority may only authorise the use of 'directed surveillance' when it is necessary and proportionate, for the purposes of detecting or preventing a criminal offence punishable by over six months or related to the underage sale of alcohol or tobacco, and with a magistrate's approval.

Home Office guidance from 2018 under RIPA 2000 states that whether the monitoring of a person's social media constitutes directed surveillance depends on whether the person has a reasonably held expectation of privacy in what they post. This expectation may apply even when they have not made use of privacy settings, if their intention was not for their postings to be used for covert investigation.

Results of the research

A key finding of the research was that the use of Facebook was not unusual and practitioners mentioned 'office' and 'team' Facebook accounts - these are not 'fake' accounts, rather general local authority pages that are used to observe the Facebook accounts of service users or families' whose accounts are not set to private. The research found 'troubling' surveillance being discussed casually in case conferences and being tolerated by managers. It was concluded that the process of normalising the behaviour of looking at Facebook accounts enabled social workers not only to justify such actions, but also to use Facebook as an everyday tool for working with families.

Some social workers tended to use the argument that because the information is publicly available on accessible Facebook pages, then it was fair to use it. Other social workers accepted that it still could appear to be intrusive, but nevertheless they wanted to keep the families 'in the dark' about their surveillance to ensure the Facebook page remained publicly accessible. A common argument to justify the actions is that it was justifiable to use surveillance to gather evidence information already in the public domain and to ensure the safety of a child. The findings confirmed that 'some workers were willing to stretch and break ethical codes to use social media, where they felt it was justified in the interests of the child'.

Forbes comment

Overwhelmingly, the research revealed a lack guidance and confusion about policy in relation to the use of Facebook, with many practitioners and managers left uncertain about the legality of using Facebook and the accuracy of the 'evidence' collected. Going forward, it seems that the use of Facebook and social media by practitioners needs addressing and some form of guidance is clearly required to give clarity to social work teams.

Our highly experienced and specialist Inquest team can provide advice and guidance on the Inquest process and any associated matters. For further advice contact Alice McKenna via email or phone on 01254 222373 or Lucy Harris via email or phone on 01254 222443.

Source: Tarsem Singh Cooner, Liz Beddoe, Harry Ferguson & Eileen Joy (2019) The use of Facebook in social work practice with children and families: exploring complexity in an emerging practice, Journal of Technology in Human Services

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