Fake social media accounts have been used by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment more than 400 times since the start of 2020, Marc Daalder reports

Immigration New Zealand has used fake social media accounts to covertly watch suspected offenders hundreds of times in the past 15 months.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) told Newsroom in response to an Official Information Act request that it had used false personas 426 times since the start of 2020.

“The primary users of discreet social media searches within MBIE are in Immigration New Zealand, with additional use in other regulatory areas such as the Labour Inspectorate and Radio Spectrum Management. Such searching is only used to identify specific information of interest, and is only authorised when information cannot be acquired through other lower risk means,” a spokesperson for the agency said.

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In 2019, then-minister Iain Lees-Galloway said MBIE officials would be asked to justify their use of fake accounts to the government, after Radio New Zealand reported the department had paid $112,000 to a consultancy firm to train staff in the process. This came just a month after the Public Service Commission provided protocols for agencies undertaking investigations for law enforcement and regulatory purposes, amidst fallout from the use of private investigation firm Thompson and Clark.

In response, MBIE developed a set of guidelines for using social media in investigations in July 2019. The procedures list four tiers of social media and various checks and balances around each.

A simple review of publicly-available information, like a Google search or a public social media account, can be done without approval. This is Level 1 usage, or “open unregistered searching”.

Level 2, in which an MBIE employee uses an account with their actual details to gain access to a social media platform that requires an account, necessitates a supervisor’s authorisation.

Level 3, “discreet searching”, involves the use of a fake account to gain access to private discussions and requires managerial sign-off. However, even Level 3 usage is passive – it doesn’t allow the employee to engage with others while in the guise of the “false persona”.

Finally, Level 4 usage – “discreet active engagement” – would be using a fake account to message or otherwise interact with a person or forum.

MBIE told Newsroom that since the start of 2020, Level 2 usage had been authorised 100 times and Level 3 usage allowed 426 times. Level 4 had never been approved and the department said it had no records of unapproved Level 2, 3 or 4 usage.

The agency declined to provide Newsroom with a copy of its internal register of Level 2 and 3 uses or a database of false personas it uses to keep the “facts” about each fake account straight.

However, excerpts from these documents are available in the guidelines themselves. The false persona database, for example, contains a column reminding officials to check that the fake name is not the same as the real name of any other MBIE employee.

A spokesperson for MBIE said false personas were needed “to access social media sites where accounts are required to view information and where it would not be appropriate for a personal or corporate account to be used because the activity may be linked back to the account doing the viewing.

“Information gathered is used to inform lines of investigation and evidence-gathering in order to detect possible offending or non-compliance with regulatory regimes, or to verify information which is otherwise unobtainable. For instance, information posted on social media sites may contradict information provided to the ministry by a person of interest in an investigation into migrant exploitation.”

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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