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Department's decision to monitor social media sparks criticism from advocacy groups

Social media monitoring is one three media monitoring contracts being advertised by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection.

Image: Shutterstock/REDPIXEL.PL

Updated Aug 27th 2018, 10:00 PM

THE DEPARTMENT OF Employment Affairs and Social Protection’s decision to issue a tender for social media monitoring has raised a number of concerns amongst privacy campaigners.

The company that wins the contract will monitor key words on various social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, and provide analysis to the department in email updates or digests. The procurement documents  do not make it clear exactly what the monitoring will entail.

News of the move sparked a number of queries from advocacy groups. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties said it could have a “chilling effect” on freedom of expression while Digital Rights Ireland questioned whether it was legal.

“There is no indication that the Department intends to anonymise the details they collect. If not, they must comply with the GDPR which by default requires that only personal data necessary for a specific purpose be collected, processed, and stored,” Elizabeth Farries, of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, said.

The GDPR has even more stringent requirements for the processing of political opinion data, understood to be a ‘special category’ of personal data. Given the unresolved privacy risks, there is also the risk of a chilling effect for freedom of expression. People dependent on essential Department’s services should not, out of fear of their opinions being monitored or archived by the Department, have to restrict their opinions on Facebook or Twitter.

Those comments were echoed by Simon McGarr, director of Data Compliance Europe and solicitor for Digital Rights Ireland.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, McGarr said that the department was obliged to carry out a ‘data protection impact assessment’ under article 35 of the GDPR. If the assessment was carried out, he asked where it was published?

McGarr added:

If the impact assessment found that monitoring was appropriate what was the basis that this was not captured under article 9.1, which prohibits the processing of data revealing political opinions?

In a response to TheJournal.ie, the department said that the tender was advertised because a shift in the media landscape in recent years has seen economic and customer issues regularly communicated on social media in the first instance.

The spokesperson added that the inclusion of the tender does not commit the department to procuring a social media monitoring service “now or in the future”.

Should the Department elect to appoint a provider of a Social Media monitoring service in future, the service would be fully compliant with applicable data protection, privacy and GDPR obligations. 

Media monitoring

The request for tender appeared earlier this month as part of a wider media monitoring tender. As well as social media monitoring the department is also seeking a broadcast media monitoring service and a print and digital media monitoring service.

The company that wins the print and digital media contract will monitor up to 6,500 articles per month (approximately 4,500 from print media and 2,000 from digital media).

Print media analysis will be provided in a digest each morning and digital media updates will be provided at regular intervals throughout the day.

The broadcast media service involves providing email updates showing the relevant coverage on all national, regional, and local radio and television stations across Ireland.

According to the Contracting Authority’s estimates the total value of the three contracts is €70,800 a year.

The most lucrative contract, by far, is the print and digital media monitoring lot, which is worth €54,000 a year. The broadcast media monitoring service is worth €9,600 a year, while the social media monitoring contract is worth €7,200.

The companies applying for the three contracts may apply for as many of the lots as they wish and the deadline for applications is 14 September.

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Ceimin Burke

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