As social workers increasingly take to social media to spy on parents and children going through family proceedings, Researching Reform takes a look at what families can do to protect themselves from online privacy breaches.
The news last week that family social workers have been breaking the law to gather information on parents going through child protection proceedings by collecting information about children from social media accounts has understandably alarmed families.
The revelation has left parents feeling more targeted than ever by social services, who they say are unjustly and aggressively removing children in order to compensate for shrinking budgets inside local authorities.
Fostering agencies in the UK made in excess of £41m profit in 2015. Last year, Britain’s foster care industry was valued at £1.7 billion.
The Chief Surveillance Commissioner’s annual report from 2014 also notes the way public authorities are behaving in order to claw back costs:
“In cash-strapped public authorities, it might be tempting to conduct on-line investigations from a desktop, as this saves time and money, and often provides far more detail about someone’s personal lifestyle, employment, associates, etc. But just because one can, does not mean one should. The same considerations of privacy, and especially collateral intrusion against innocent parties, must be applied regardless of the technological advances.”
Families going through child protection proceedings often feel isolated and unsupported, as legal representation is too expensive for many to access and legal aid has become almost impossible to secure.
Rules which prevent families from discussing their cases with outsiders also heighten a sense of loneliness and disempowerment during a process which is gruelling and at times inhumane.
The reality of the family court experience has led to a surge in service users gathering online to find information and support from other families who are going, or have gone through the system. Social media has also become a place where families who feel their children have been unjustly removed go to expose their concerns.
Social workers have tried to quell online activity through court-ordered non-disclosure agreements which prevent families from discussing their cases on public forums like Twitter and Facebook. Social work professionals have been quick to respond to the difficulties in policing this kind of activity and enforcing such orders and they have started to change tack.
Now, children’s social workers are using the internet to spy on families and collect as much information as they can to bolster their reports and assessments, but they are breaking the law.
Subject access requests (SARs) shown to this site also reveal an alarming trend within councils of producing forms for social workers to fill out in which they ask for personal information about service users’ social media accounts, without following the law. One service user told Researching Reform:
“I did a SAR request and came across a form which actually asks the social worker “Are there any pictures of the child on social media?” so it would seem to be a part of the job.”
Another parent who has been through the family court told this site about their SAR request, which had been redacted – the name of the social worker who had unlawfully gathered data from the mother had been removed. No other information was edited out.
Other service users described their own experiences of being stalked by social workers online. One father said:
“[Social services] have been stalking me for years now on Facebook. It doesn’t bother me, I’ve got nothing at all to hide. Only letting them know the truth – that Our Daughter is Still Loved and Missed. They are not going to try to bully us again.”
Research published by the Times newspaper last month confirmed that social workers in the UK were engaging in criminal activity as they collected data from families going through child welfare proceedings. The research noted that social workers were not following legislation on data collection and in failing to comply were in violation of the law.
While there is an urgent need for a review of these practices, any change in behaviour will be slow and so the aim of this post is to ensure that families can protect themselves immediately from data breaches.
As social workers become more familiar with platforms like Facebook, research has highlighted a growing trend in child welfare professionals setting up fake accounts to monitor families. Social workers will use those accounts to send friend requests to families and then monitor their profiles, online activity and posts.
Friends of Friends
A quick and efficient way of protecting Facebook accounts is to set your account from public to private and remove open access to your Friend Request button so that you only allow friends of friends to connect with you. The setting also removes the Friend Request button from your account which prevents strangers from being able to see or access the button.
While this does not ensure that all friend requests will be genuine – a friend may have accidentally connected to a fake account which could try to connect with you – it significantly decreases the risk of your account being exposed to criminal activity.
The setting can be changed by:
Going to Privacy Settings >>> How People Find and Contact You >>> Who Can Send You Friend Requests >>> Friend of Friend
You can also set your Facebook posts to Private as the default position, make your Friends list private and block people from finding you through searches. This post from LifeWire offers quick steps on how to set up these safety measures.
If you suspect that you are connected to a fake account, Facebook also allows you the option of blocking the account. Facebook offers a quick set by step guide on how to block users.
Reporting an Account
Fake accounts can also be reported to Facebook. The platform also allows you to give details about the account, and to file a full report.
The option to report abusive behaviour is also offered on Facebook. Abusive behaviour includes social workers being rude about, or to, service users online, and breaking the law while gathering data on families (we will explain a little further down how to spot illegal data gathering). This page on Facebook offers information on how to report abusive accounts and content.
Before taking any action against an account, we would strongly recommend doing the following:
- Set up a private ‘Neighbourhood Watch’ page where members can discuss suspicious-looking accounts in order to work out whether they are genuine or fake
- Once an account has been deemed fake, take a screenshot of the account page and write down its URL in order to have a record of the name and details of the account
- If you have received correspondence from a council that your account has been viewed, review the data the council has set down from your account. If the data has come from more than one page, or has been accessed several times from the same page (i.e. if the council sets down the number of times the same piece of data has been logged by them), make a record of this and take screenshots of each accessed page.
Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) councils and their agents – which includes social workers – can view a Facebook account once without engaging legal protocols, but are then legally required to obtain permission for repeat viewing or continued surveillance.
There is significant controversy around using RIPA for spying on parents in child welfare proceedings. The legislation was criticised by Lords and politicians in 2016, who argued that it was only ever intended to be used to protect the British public from extreme threats such as terrorism.
RIPA and Facebook
If a social worker wants to explore a service user’s account, their council will need to carry out an assessment to assess whether the spying is warranted, beforehand.
Where a council decides that data collection is appropriate, the social worker will then need to get an order from a magistrate to collect that information.
RIPA legislation kicks in every time an investigator/social worker looks at a Facebook account while taking steps to hide their activity from the account holder they are spying on.
Where a social worker accesses a service user’s Facebook account through a Friend Request, this automatically places a legal responsibility on the council to ensure that RIPA has been followed by their social worker.
Under section 26(8) of RIPA that connection signifies an intent to establish or maintain a personal or other relationship with a person for the covert purpose of facilitating data collection and sharing that data with others.
When deciding whether or not to authorise a social worker to access a service user’s Facebook account, councils will also need to comply with the Human Rights Act – specifically Article 8, which provides for a right to respect for private and family life – and the Data Protection Act 1998.
- Facebook, Social Networks and the Need for RIPA Authorisations
- Judicial Approval for Council Surveillance
- Stafford Borough Council’s Guidelines on surveillance policy and procedure
- RIPA Codes
Suing the Council
If a social worker has breached RIPA in accessing your personal information, you are entitled to pursue a claim against the council.