Photo: Justin Sullivan ((Getty)

Last year, an English child protection worker was assigned a case where a mother was deemed a high risk to her baby’s safety. It’s the worker’s job to protect the child and, if necessary, separate the mother from her kid.

To do that, the worker hunts for information: What is the mother doing with her day-to-day life? Is she keeping the child safe? Is the family’s bad situation getting better or worse? With such high stakes, is the mom being honest about any of that?

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In the 21st century, there are few better ways to conduct covert surveillance than social media. Facebook, the world’s biggest social network with 2.1 billion users and growing, is distinguished by often offering the deepest and most detailed look inside people’s lives.

That’s one reason why advertisers paid an estimated $55 billion to the social media giant last year. It’s also why social media surveillance is practiced widely by police, political operators, employers, propagandists, insurance companies, marketers and, yes, social workers as well.

The English social worker, her colleagues and superiors watched the mother’s Facebook account for several months, a saga laid out in new research from the United Kingdom’s Lancaster University, which followed English child protection workers for a year in 2018 to observe the profession’s use of Facebook spying.

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“Do you spy on Facebook?” one social worker on the case asked a colleague, according to the report.

“Oh, yeah, I’m a big fan of Facebook stalking and [our manager] always comes in when I’m looking at it, she thinks I’m on Facebook all the time!,” the colleague answered. “I’ve got a fake Facebook account and I have to be very careful with the families that I don’t reveal something I’ve seen on Facebook!”

The tactic of using fake identities on Facebook accounts created expressively to surveil targets is a violation of Facebook’s real name policy, which states that “pretending to be anything or anyone isn’t allowed.”

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Breaking the rules or not, few of the competent fakers are getting caught, researchers found.

It’s also a tactic that’s been used by police in the United States to conduct surveillance during criminal investigations. Facebook warned those police departments that they were breaking the Silicon Valley company’s rules.

In some places, most notably the United Kingdom, the entire strategy of social media surveillance may be illegal. The UK’s Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act allows government investigators, including social workers, to view citizen’ social network profiles once. Repeated viewing and ongoing surveillance without a person’s consent requires special permission that these social workers apparently didn’t get.

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Some UK social work offices have team Facebook accounts with fake identities that get used to surveil clients and their families. Thanks to a lack of privacy settings, a lot of public data from Facebook accounts, including things like relationship statuses and photos, are then used in these investigations. One mom, under watch and uncooperative with government social workers, posted to Facebook about her new boyfriend and shared a picture including a bag of marijuana. She was unaware she was under surveillance.

In the U.S., where no such law exists, social workers practice social media surveillance much more regularly. A 2017 study showed that, from top to bottom, managers and social workers themselves made regular use of the tactics and believed “overall, that the benefits of social media use by staff far outweigh the risks.”

Half of American social workers are comfortable with actively using Facebook surveillance for work. A 2016 survey showed 59 percent of social workers use Facebook to look for missing clients and 54 percent search for “risk factors” like, in the example above, parents engaging in illegal activities and contact with a child.

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Four months after the UK social workers chatted about the effectiveness of spying on Facebook, that child was taken away from the mother. The social workers checked the mom’s Facebook regularly to learn about the woman’s state of mind. Part of the reasoning given for the separation was “disturbing” and “problematic” videos posted by the mom on the social network.

Information sourced from Facebook regularly leads to decisive action like children being taken away from parents who are deemed a real risk to the kids’ safety and wellbeing, the researchers found. Conversations between colleagues and managers underline just how widespread the practice is now.

“There was a case where dad wasn’t supposed to have any contact with this little girl and there was very clearly a picture on Facebook of dad sat with a joint in his hand with baby on his knee,” one social worker told researchers last year. “I mean, it’s like that thing, isn’t it, between what’s morally and ethically correct and where, as a local authority, if you’re getting evidence from whichever source that tells us that children are at risk we need to be intervening.”

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There is a stark disagreement among some people in the social work and child protection profession about the use of Facebook for surveillance. The ethics and utility of the tactics can seem diametrically opposed and the legal landscape in changing.

One English child protection worker cited in the report called Facebook surveillance “an invasion of privacy,” another called into question whether “it’s appropriate anyway to snoop.”

The use of Facebook for surveillance by social workers is widespread around the world, numerous studies show. On top of the disagreement, there’s a confused grey area where most social workers sit, unsure of what’s ethically right or wrong.

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“We do a lot of monitoring of Facebook,” another social worker told researchers. “Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, I don’t know.”

Inside the grey area, fake identities and covert surveillance continue to be a well-used tool from workers who know the tactic works but who recognize there is much more to the question than that.