Parents under surveillance on social media

Edited version published in the Scottish Sunday Express, 9 July 2017.

This parent turned to home education when her child’s needs were not met in school and complaints went unaddressed.

Council’s ‘creepy’ spies snoop on Facebook and pass on pupil’s details

Council snoopers have infiltrated ‘closed’ social media groups which parents have turned to for support with school-related problems and are passing sensitive information back to education bosses, an Aberdeenshire mother has warned.

Records released to Sharon Gardner under the Data Protection Act included details of comments she had posted on two restricted-access Facebook groups in which she criticised the treatment of her autistic son at an Inverurie primary school.

She was shocked to find that screenshots of her conversations had been captured and sent to four colleagues whose names were redacted from the records.

Since the source was only identified as a “member of staff”, it has been impossible to ascertain whether a genuine or fake social media profile was used to gain access to the groups.

Ms Gardener removed her eight-year-old son Fraser from Strathburn Primary School last October due to concerns that his additional support needs were not being met.

He later disclosed to his mother that he had been physically restrained by school staff and locked in a state of distress in a quiet room without access to a toilet, which had led to him wetting and soiling himself.

Ms Gardner said: “Previous to finding out what had happened to Fraser at school, I had written to withdraw from the named person scheme and prohibit any data sharing without my express permission.

“When I later submitted a subject access request for my son’s files, the records included screenshots of posts I had placed on a members-only autism support group and another closed Aberdeenshire parents’ group.

“Members who had responded to me with supportive comments were described by an unnamed person in an email as ‘parents making similar claims, albeit not naming schools or individuals’, but I still have no idea who leaked our information.

“Covert surveillance like this is extremely creepy.”

Ms Gardner’s complaints that her son’s treatment breached the stated policy on dealing with children with sensory issues, as well as his individual education plan, are being investigated by the council.

She has also lodged complaints with the Scottish public services ombudsman and the General Teaching Council and sought advice from the information commissioner (ICO) on the legality of using personal data obtained via social media.

Ms Gardner said: “The ICO told me I should expect privacy in a closed Facebook group and that it would be reasonable for the council to tell me who had shared my information.

“But the council said there had not been any data breach and told me that I couldn’t withdraw from the named person scheme as it hadn’t yet started.

“This is despite my son’s head teacher being referred to as the named person in his school documentation.”

Ms Gardner is disappointed that the ICO has now ruled out further action because the council did not “proactively” source the data, despite the informant being referred to in the records as a “member of staff”.

She believes the controversial named person legislation, which was overturned last year in the Supreme Court, has ingrained a culture of snooping in public services and presumes her son’s named person was one of the unnamed recipients of her Facebook posts.

Award-winning disability rights campaigner Beth Morrison, who runs a special needs forum for families of disabled children in Tayside, said she took the decision not to “knowingly” accept any professionals into her group after evidence emerged that screenshots of members’ discussions had been sent to the council and a local school.

She said: “A lot of groups have found having professionals as members has stopped parents from speaking out about schools and services for fear of repercussions.

“The biggest source of stress to families who have children with additional support needs isn’t living with their child’s condition, it is how others deal with their child’s condition.

“A major problem for them is school and how education staff treat the child.

“The last thing any family needs is to seek help via a support group and some ‘spy’ employed by the state goes and gives this information to the named person whose job is based on tittle-tattle.”

She added that online support groups were especially invaluable for parents of disabled children who travel to and from school by taxi as they missed out on school-gate social interaction with fellow carers.

Legal advice obtained by Ms Morrison after two separate incidents of “data theft” from her forum indicated that information taken from a closed group could not be used to take action against parents, but it could undermine trust and create tensions.

Data protection consultant Tim Turner said: “A council becomes responsible for any personal data the moment it receives it and data protection law requires them to be transparent about the source if asked by the data subject.

“If the source was a member of staff, it would be a lot harder to justify a lack of transparency, so a teacher acting in a professional capacity wouldn’t have the same expectation of privacy that a parent might.”

A spokesperson for Aberdeenshire Council said the authority had an established process for investigating complaints, which “does not involve joining private Facebook groups under false pretences”.

He added: “We would not expect any employee to join a group in a personal capacity for the purpose of obtaining information for the council.

“We would investigate any information brought to our attention where there may be a risk of harm to an individual. The notification of individuals would depend on the nature of that information”

A spokesman for Dundee City Council said: “If we receive unsolicited information by any means, including social media, it would be discounted, unless action had to be taken to prevent criminal activity, for child protection or over health and safety concerns.

“The council has social media guidelines for employees which encourage the use of common sense and judgement. Postings should not provide confidential details about work or individuals.

“In general, employees must not post comments, videos and photos, or express views that bring the council or its employees into disrepute, or which can cause offence.”

An Argyll and Bute Council communications manager was suspended in 2012 following a row over the alleged use of social media ‘spy accounts’ to monitor the activities of groups whose members were critical of council policies.

Last year, East Lothian Council published a policy document describing how covert surveillance could be conducted via social media under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Scotland) Act 2000.



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