1 in 6 cities using fake social media accounts to spy on protests, rioters, asylum seekers
Dutch municipalities are using fake social media profiles on a large scale to gain insight into potentially illegal activities of their residents, even though such forms of snooping are only supposed to be carried out by police and intelligence services. About one in six municipalities use fake accounts for this purpose, newspaper Volkskrant reported based on research carried out by the NHL Stenden Hogeschool and the University of Groningen.
Searching online databases under false names, storing personal data and entering private groups is a serious violation of the rights of citizens, according to Bart Custers, professor of Law and Data Science at Leiden University. "Municipalities are not allowed to act as the police or intelligence service. It is simply forbidden," he told Volkskrant.
According to the newspaper, this method is commonly used to keep track of protestors, demonstrations, and potential rioters. The researchers claimed cities also used social medial platforms to dive into the backgrounds of those seeking asylum in an attempt to verify their claims about what they were fleeing from and how they made their escape. Municipalities have also used social media to spy on people who might be trying to cheat the social benefit system, a particularly contentious revelation as earlier this year the use of algorithms and profiling of childcare benefits recipients led to the fall of Prime Minister Mark Rutte's third Cabinet.
In many cases, municipal officials also join private Facebook groups under a fake name. Additionally, a number of municipalities in the Netherlands also stored the data collected using this surveillance method. In at least 23 municipalities this is carried out automatically, according to the study.
In the words of Bart Jacobs, professor of computer security at Radboud University, authorities often try to use this technique to find out where hooligans are congregating and prevent possible riots. This form of snooping can be useful, he said, but only in case the municipalities comply with the relevant regulations.
Researchers collected survey responses from 156 of the 352 Dutch municipalities to draw their conclusions. In a response to the research, The Association of Dutch municipalities (VNG) said they have no clear overview about this type of online monitoring. "We are working on an inventory. This research can help with that," they stated.