Municipalities still using fake social media accounts to spy on residents
A number of Dutch municipalities are using fake social media accounts to gather information about their citizens online. Despite criticism from privacy experts, these municipalities believe Dutch law allows civil servants to monitor residents in this way, and they plan to keep doing it, the Volkskrant reported after speaking to the municipalities.
A a recent study by NHL Steden University of Applied Sciences and the University of Groningen revealed that nearly a sixth of Dutch municipalities were using fake accounts to monitor their residents online. They used the fake profiles to detect crime like welfare fraud, and to identify possible disturbances such as riots.
The Volkskrant contacted the municipalities after the study to find out whether they were still using fake accounts. Several municipalities, including Uithoorn and Hilversum, told the newspaper that they've stopped using fake accounts until there is more clarity about the regulations. But at least nine municipalities are sticking to the method.
A spokesperson for the municipality of Tilburg told the newspaper that the fake accounts are "necessary" to protect officials' privacy. "We do this carefully and with integrity," the spokesperson said. Utrecht also cited officials' safety in its use of an alias for investigation into illegal prostitution, adding that this is used only in "exceptional cases". Nijmegen told the newspaper that using fake accounts is not necessarily against the rules.
According to the Volkskrant, there is a great deal of uncertainty among municipalities about what is and is not allowed. Some municipalities said they don't use fake social media accounts due to laws and regulations that prohibit it. Other municipalities cited these same laws and regulations to show that monitoring residents in this way is allowed.
Privacy experts told the newspaper that municipalities are definitely not allowed to use fake social media accounts to collect evidence of criminal offences. Only the police and intelligence services have that power, and then under strict conditions, Bart Custers, professor of Law and Data Science at Leiden University said. "Both training and guarantees are very different for municipal investigating officers than for the police. It is undesirable if they are allowed the same."
"It is not allowed as long as there is no legal basis," Jon Schilder, professor of Constitutional and Administrative Law at the Vrije Unversteit, said to the newspaper. He called the method not transparent, and entailing a risk of invasion of privacy. "Just because something is technically possible, doesn't mean you have to do it."