The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment has hired a security firm to increase staff skills in using fake social media profiles to gather intelligence.

Among the modules offered are harvesting information from social networks, creating back-stories for false online personae and creating dossiers on people and groups.

When informed of the training by the Herald, Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones said senior ministers would be briefed on the issue when they returned to work at the end of the month.

"Kiwis should be able to go about their daily business without the fear of bureaucrats peering into their social media," he said.

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Details of the $112,000 contract with Wellington firm ZX Security Ltd were released on the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) website on December 18.

It, along with other documents about the ministry's security operations, were released on the day State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes put out a highly critical report into the use of external security consultants by government agencies.

The contract, which was signed in December 2017 and runs until March 2021, is for the delivery of courses on advanced social media search training to groups of around 10 MBIE staff at a time in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

Participants are taught how to search and gather information from key social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram.

Perhaps worryingly for government employees subject to the Official Information Act, the training includes how to send and receive anonymous SMS and email messages.MBIE staff can also learn how to extract metadata from images, including GPS co-ordinates and device information such as mobile phone and camera models, and create detailed dossiers on groups or individuals.

The ministry has responsibility for government portfolios including immigration, building and housing, energy, tourism, financial markets and competition regulation and economic development.

An spokesperson told the Herald yesterday the contract with ZX Security was still in operation but the ministry had strict controls on the use of social media for verification and investigation purposes.

Around 70 staff in areas including Immigration New Zealand, Radio Spectrum Management and the Immigration Advisers Authority had completed the one-day course but no staff had so far done optional modules which included harvesting information, analysing image metadata and creating dossiers.

The spokesperson did not directly respond to questions about why staff underwent the training or its purpose.

However, the contract states the objective would ensure staff were kept safe while using social media for work, increase their knowledge of social media intelligence and introduce them to the latest techniques and tools to extract data from social media to help them in their work.

The spokesperson said as a result of the State Services Commission's report into the use of external investigators, MBIE was reviewing its arrangements and taking steps to ensure it was responding fully to the inquiry's recommendations, including complying with Commissioner Hughes' new model standards for information-gathering.

Jones, the Government's duty minister yesterday, said the circumstances where such training may be useful was in keeping on top of "dodgy student visas", referring to cases where international students had used student visas as a back door to New Zealand residency.

But otherwise, he said, MBIE was a "large body and if it is found to have bureaucratic moles then Peter Hughes is the surgeon to remove them".

A spokesperson for the Office of the Ombudsman said information created by officials using social media messaging as part of their work would be subject to the Official Information Act.

"The test as to whether it is official information or not remains the same. If the individual is acting in their official capacity when information is received, created or used, then it is official information."

Hughes was scathing in his response in December to government agencies using external investigation firms in December, calling the actions of some "an affront to democracy".

"All public servants must be vigilant in how they exercise the significant responsibilities and powers entrusted to them by New Zealanders," he said at the time.

Timeline

December 17, 2017 — Contract signed between MBIE and ZX Security Ltd to provide advanced social media training to staff using false online personae for verification and investigation services.
March 2018 — Doug Martin appointed to look into whether Southern Response Earthquake Services used Thompson & Clark Investigations Ltd to surveil insurance claimants.
July 2018 — Inquiry expanded to include MBIE then 131 government agencies and subsidiaries.
December 18, 2018 — State Services Commisioner (SSC) releases report into use of external consultants by government agencies; MBIE proactively releases documents related to use of external investigators, including ZX Security contract for advanced social media training.
April 30, 2019 - Government agencies required to be compliant with SSC's new model standards on information-gathering.