Today’s edition of The Herald reveals, in a headline article on Page 6 by Stephen Naysmith, that Argyll and Bute Council has an embedded practice of using online ‘Spy Accounts’ (the council’s own term, not ours) in covert surveillance of local critics.
This covert surveillance includes the private Facebook activities of campaign groups.
These will certainly have included school campaigners and their umbrella organisation, the Argyll Rural Schools Network – and indeed the school closures campaign was mentioned by Ms Smith at the conference in question. The Castle Toward Sale Facebook campaigners are another possible target as are the current Dunoon school closure campaigners, whose Facebook area is seductively password protected and who are in the troubled Council Leader’s constituency.
The Herald article shows that Council Communications Manager, Jo Smith, revealed the practice – introduced under her regime – in her presentation at a PR conference.
The event was ‘Epic social media for public services Scotland’ and was held in Glasgow’s Thistle Hotel on 28th September 2011. Ms Smith was one of the presenters in the morning, using a powerpoint backup which we located at the online conference report and downloaded – in the nick of time as the page was (coincidentally?) suspended – and remains so, shortly after Ms Smith learned that The Herald was running this story.
In her presentation,we understand that Ms Smith not only revealed the council practice of using ‘Spy Accounts’ but advocated its use by her fellow public service professionals.
To the credit of that profession, whose reputation is substantially damaged by the use of such practices, the Herald article records that many in the audience were shocked and recoiled instinctively from the unethical nature of such practices.
Ms Smith was also taking an afternoon workshop at the event, on managing negatives, during which she was, according to Mr Naysmith’s piece, questioned on the ethics of what she was doing. Ethical practice, on this evidence, has hardly been a prime value of Ms Smith’s but the question will have alerted her to the alarms of others – and the necessary backtracking appears to have followed.
In this Ms Smith talked of dummy accounts in Facebook groups. But the deliberate use of the chosen term ‘Spy Accounts’ implies very much more – the invisible presence on the forums of such groups being entry level activity.
The critical fact is that the use of ‘Spy Accounts’ – and we emphasise that this is the council’s own terminology as promulgated by Ms Smith – is and has been in practice for some time. It has been enthusiastically adopted. It is being touted as the way forward. Signally, it has established both the appetite for and the practice of covert surveillance in Argyll and Bute Council, even to the level of spying on local critics and campaigners.
In the light of this genuinely horrifying revelation, it is unlikely that this is by any means the only area in which this council administration will have been employing covert surveillance. It has long been paranoid about opposition councillors – and internal trust of administration members themselves is not universal.
There is further cause for alarm in the recent plan to expand the council’s press department extensively and expensively. We now know what work these new staffers will be doing – information harvested by covert surveillance takes a lot of time to review.
The big question is the use to which such information has been put and by whom?
Unlawful as well as unethical
The use of surveillance of all kinds by local authorities is recognised not to be well governed but it is statutorily governed by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Scotland) Act 2000. This is the transfer to Scottish law of the Westminster enacted Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.
In the terms of the conduct covered by the Act, Ms Smith’s gung-ho activities undertaken by her own account at the conference, in the council’s name, is ‘directed surveillance’.
Ms Smith was speaking at the Glasgow event as Communications Manager at Argyll and Bute Council. Her entire presentation was about council communications and the ‘Spy Accounts’ activity was presented by her as current council practice. Rightly or wrongly the council is now hard wired into complicity in this ongoing practice.
Local authorities are required to have authorisation for surveillance activity. This can be given by magistrates and local authorities can also have internal staff permitted to issue such authorisations.
Permitted surveillance by local authorities centres on issues like counter-terrorism, benefit fraud and fly-tipping. There has, however, been increasing concern about local authority abuse of covert surveillance activity – and its application to internet activity is recognised as the hardest to defend.
Questions to be asked
- Does Argyll and Bute Council have specific authorisation for these covert activities?
- How many internal officers are able to authorise such activity?
- How many internal requests for authorisation have been received over the past two years?
- What percentage of authorisations was granted in relation to requests received?
We are asking the Chief executive to confirm whether the ‘Spy Account’ activities trumpeted by Ms Smith at this formal public event were authorised and if so, by whom and under what terms of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Scotland) Act?
We are asking for precise information on what was done with the information gathered by such means – and by whom.
We are asking, if these covert surveillance activities were not authorised, what is the council’s attitude to an employee who conducts such activities personally, in the council’s name and gives a public audience of professionals to understand that this is now council policy?
A sacking issue
If these activities were not authorised, there is a straightforward sacking imperative since this practice has destroyed the council’s reputation for ethical conduct in its communications operation.
It has left the leader of the council’s communications team in a position beyond public trust and therefore leaves all public communications from the council suffering a profound credibility deficit. This position cannot be recovered under Ms Smith.
We are calling on all Argyll media to make their own position on this matter, whatever it is, unequivocal at the earliest opportunity. Their readers and listeners have a right to know their values on such issues, not least since many of them, particularly through the widespread activities on school closure campaigns, will have been unknowingly subject to such covert surveillance.
For Argyll unhesitatingly finds such practices, in any form and at any level, completely unacceptable in ethical practice. This is a road no honest person or organisation should even contemplate starting to travel.
If Ms Smith’s activities were authorised, the council will find it difficult to account for the endorsement of such conduct.
The Herald article notes a council response it received last night:
‘Argyll and Bute Council does not use and does not condone the use of covert social media accounts’.
Did this statement come from the Council’s official spokesperson, its Communications Manager, Ms Smith?
This impossibility makes clear the fact that her position is untenable. She has, as is now known to be the removal trigger, become the story.
Her inevitable departure will not, however, be an end to the matter. There are now other issues to be investigated, such as the possible covert surveillance of elected members.
If Ms Smith’s covert surveillance adventures were not authorised, it paints a picture of a council out of control, where no one knows or cares what anyone else is doing. It is inconceivable that in a well managed council administration, an officer at senior level would go solo and so spectacularly off piste in so sensitive a matter.
Ms Smith may have been an enthusiastically unprincipled participant in covert surveillance practices but there is an underlying corporate culture at Argyll and Bute Council which breeds such activities and values and which is overdue root and branch revision.
Note: Here is Ms Smith’s back up powerpoint presentation for her appearance at the ‘Epic Social Media for Public Services Scotland’ conference in Glasgow on 28th September 2011, (josmith). Readers will note, as we did with some amusement, that Slide 6 is devoted solely to uncredited material from For Argyll under the heading ‘It shouldn’t happen to a Council’. No examples of negative media coverage from any other source are given. We take it as confirmation of our good judgment that we are of such singular concern to an administration and an officer whose reputations for probity of practice are now beyond recall.
Update Note 16.47 10th February: : The Herald story is now available online here.