Controversial social media surveillance commissioned by the Government analysed New Zealanders' private messages to government sites without their knowledge, and contrary to the officials' descriptions of the work.
Private company Annalect (now Resolution, controlled by US and Australia-based companies) provided the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet with some 231 "social listening" reports over a period of two years, at a cost of more than a quarter of a million dollars.
In March, Cheryl Barnes, deputy chief executive of the department, told the Herald the data analysed in the reports was already available in the public arena, and collected from sites like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
At the same time Barnes refused the Herald's Official Information Act request for the release of all the reports, which she said would require "substantial collation". The department provided just 16 reports which were not a representative sample (through a subsequent OIA request the Herald obtained five more reports).
Last week, a Department spokesman apologised to the Herald "for the lack of clarity" in DPMC's OIA response, and added that over a period of more than a year, some of the reports also used data from the Unite Against Covid-19 social media channels, including questions asked through direct messages.
Some direct messages were also published as excerpts in the reports. Similarly, the public's private messages to Ministry of Health social media channels were also analysed, excerpted and published.
No effort was made to alert those using the Government sites that their private messages could be used in this way.
The department spokesman said that no information identifying individuals was provided in the reports that covered private messages.
However, other reports which draw on data from the public domain contained both excerpts of individuals' comments from social media as well as the commenters' profile pictures, "in very small thumbnails" the department spokesman further clarified.
He said Annalect "introduced further privacy measures" in September 2021 and the practice of including photographs was discontinued.
Acting Covid-19 Response Minister Ayesha Verrall said officials have informed her there was "no breach of anyone's privacy in the handling, use or disclosure of information collected. The Covid-19 Group acknowledges the process for providing this information could have been better."
Lara Greaves, senior lecturer in New Zealand politics at Auckland University, said the undisclosed surveillance of private messages was "shocking" and "not ethical".
"There's no way this work would pass the ethics standards that the Government puts in place for researchers, and it wouldn't pass a standard university ethics process."
Social media surveillance is commonly used by corporations in the private sector, typically in tracking brand awareness; however, many critics say it presents thorny issues of privacy protection and public trust when undertaken by Government.
DPMC said the work has helped the Government to understand how the public has received both rules and rule changes related to Covid-19, and to identify gaps in people's understanding of them.
It's unclear whether the reports have broken New Zealand privacy laws.
Acting Privacy Commissioner Liz MacPherson said she didn't have sufficient information to assess whether the reports have breached the Privacy Act.
"Most people who choose to communicate via the direct message channel of a social media site would have the expectation that their messages will be used only for a specific, limited purpose."
"It is important that they know how their messages could be used before they choose to submit them," she said.
MacPherson said her office does not intend to investigate DPMC's reports. However, she noted that "from the perspective of maintaining trust and confidence in their operations, it is in agencies' best interests to give careful thought to what they or their agents are collecting from publicly available sources and what it is being used or reused for."
She said the case has "brought to our attention the need for us to provide clear guidance for agencies on our expectations when it comes to social media monitoring and in particular the need for transparency about how personal information is being used."
She said her office will issue further guidance on the matter in the coming weeks.
MacPherson has also raised some of the ethical issues arising from the Annalect reports with the Public Service Commission. A spokesman for the Commission said Commissioner Peter Hughes received a letter from the Privacy Commission last week and is "considering the issues raised in the letter".
Shane Reti, National's spokesman for Health, said it is clear that the social media surveillance has sorely lacked "checks and balances".
"We need people to have confidence in Government, and have confidence that when they interact with the Government the Government is being open and transparent with them. The pandemic has brought forward many urgent issues, but one of them is the issue of trust between the Government and New Zealanders, and New Zealanders need to know that the Government is doing the right thing."
Reti first asked Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins for the full release of the themes covered in the reports in July, 2021, in a written parliamentary question. A sample of themes was provided (vaccines, travel and alert levels) rather than a full list.
In May, further parliamentary questions by Reti to Hipkins exposed the inadequacy of DPMC's earlier descriptions of the reports.
The department appears to have provided similarly incomplete information to RNZ in April about using only publically available data for social media surveillance.
"If the Government wants to engender trust then sunlight and openness is the best way to do that and it should release all of the themes covered in these reports," Reti said.
Of the 21 reports released to the Herald (dating from December 2021 to April 2022), the themes covered included:
"Covid Response: The nation's response to and perception of New Zealand's leadership and decisions surrounding the response to Covid-19."
"Economy: Conversations New Zealanders are having about the economy, economic decisions and upcoming recession and recovery."
"Team of five million/Unite against virus: Encouraging the nation to rally together, comply with the rules and cheerleading the cause."
Each report drilled further into a single topic and supplied screenshot snippets of largely anonymised conversation (the names of some "recognised experts" were retained).
The conversation snippets also contained highlighted "search query" words: such keywords included: government, Jacinda, National, kids, staying home, double jabbed, MIQ, travel, Covid test, spread and vaccine.
The DPMC spokesman clarified that for two periods (May to November 2020 and May to August 2021) Annalect also provided a different product to the one released to the Herald.
The department described this as a "Frequently asked questions" report which summarised the most asked questions about the pandemic through the Unite social media channels.
Between May and August 2021, similar treatment was given to Ministry of Health (MoH) social media channels.
Annalect reported the volume of questions asked on UAC and MoH channels about different topics relating to the Covid-19 response (for example "vaccine"), and provided examples of some of these questions in reports to highlight prominent themes, according to DPMC.
The department conducted no "Privacy Impact Assessment" in relation to the reports.
The spokesman said that Annalect was required to uphold New Zealand privacy laws when analysing and handling information found in the public domain or through direct messages to MoH and UAC social media channels. DPMC is now preparing the Annalect reports for proactive release.
The reports were supplied by Annalect New Zealand, which changed its name to Resolution New Zealand in May 2020, according to the Companies Register.
Annalect's work was commissioned through OMD, the media buying agency for the Government's Covid-19 response.
Both Annalect (Resolution) and OMD are controlled by the same majority shareholders: US-headquartered Omnicom Group and Australia-headquartered advertising, marketing and communications group, Clemenger Group.
In addition, Clemenger Group produced the campaign strategy and creative for the Unite Against Covid-19 campaign.
The total Government spend on Unite Against Covid-19 advertising and public information topped $98m at the end of February, 2022.