MBIE defends training staff to create fake identities online

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) is defending itself after revelations staff are being trained to create multiple fake identities online.

It sounds like something out of a spy movie, with government workers posing as multiple personalities online to "harvest information".

But MBIE says it's all to do with online safety for workers involved in investigations and the Government says so long as it's all above board it is sometimes necessary.

Documents show MBIE spent $112,000 on a contract with ZX Security Limited to teach staff how to take material from online platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn, maintain multiple online personas and extract GPS coordinates from photos.

Duty Minister Iain Lees-Galloway says sometimes going incognito is required for the job.

"Government agencies do need the ability to carry out investigations for instance, investigating tax evasion or ACC fraud," he says.

"Where investigations are being carried out, they have to be carried out in a lawful and appropriate fashion we expect to hear back from MB once they have reviewed this work they are doing."

The contract with ZX Security was published to the MBIE website on the 18th December 2018, although it was signed by ZX Security and MBIE a year ago.

The contract details elements of the workshops, and what employees are expected to learn.

"The provider will deliver an advanced social media training course to Ministry workers using false personas on social media for verification and investigation purposes," the document states.

Modules such as "harvesting information from social media and other sources with minimal programming knowledge" and "how to maintain multiple identities across various social networks by creating a backstory for your personas" are detailed in the contract.

Employees will also be taught "systems and processes for sending and receiving anonymous messages (SMS and email)" and "how to extract meta-data from images such as GPS coordinates and device information (e.g mobile phone/camera model)".

As well as maintaining false identities, MBIE staff learned how to identify people on social media by their use of language and how to "harvest information from social networks".

At the end of the course, a workshop is offered. The workshop aims to have attendees "use the skills gained during the course to create a detailed dossier on a group or individual".

Last month, the State Services Commission released a scathing report into the use of consultants Thompson and Clark to spy on the public.

As a result the screws were tightened and Mr Lees-Galloway says MBIE knows that.

"The PM made it very clear that she doesn't expect Government agencies to be spying on ordinary citizens," he says.

MBIE says it has strict controls in place when it comes to digital media being used for investigation purposes.

In a statement, the Ministry says as a result of the Health and Safety at Work Act it is better for workers to remain incognito online - especially if it helps lessen the risk of violence and aggression from those being investigated.

And an internet watchdog agrees.

"I think this is an important part of MB doing its job and I'm sure they are thinking about the best way of doing this as well," InternetNZ outreach and engagement director Andrew Cushen says.

So far 70 staff have been through the course which is set to continue through to 2021.