COUNCIL workers have been given new guidelines on how to snoop on people in East Lothian using their Facebook accounts.

The Surveillance Through Social Media Policy outlines three ways council employees could access social media websites to carry out investigations, including through a "covert identity using a false name".

East Lothian Council officials said the local authority had never used the covert "spy" tactics outlined in the policy and did not plan to use them in the future.

However Jim Lamond, head of council resources, told councillors during a cabinet meeting on Tuesday that using social media to investigate people did happen.

He said Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPSA) approvals, which are granted to allow investigations into an individual, were used.

He said: “In some circumstances, it may be necessary for East Lothian Council employees to access social media.

“This is not a particularly frequent activity. We are looking at around three RIPS a year and this year so far there have been none.”

Examples of reasons workers might investigate people include council tax cheating and anti-social behaviour.

Renate Gertz, the council’s compliance officer for data protection and freedom of information, told the meeting that Facebook was used as an example in guidelines because it is the most common social media site.

She said: “[Council] employees might be using it to help with council tax [enquiries] – for example, if someone claims council tax for single occupancy then is all over Facebook saying ‘my partner has moved in’."

However, she insisted covert use outlined in the policy, and questioned by Councillor David Berry as possible entrapment, had not been used in the past.

She said: “We are trying to do our investigations overtly, not covertly. I am confident we would never use this.”

The new policy outlines three types of investigators’ Facebook accounts: one where the officer uses their own personal account; a second where they use an identity which is set up to make them clearly a department representative; and a third covert identity using a false name.

It states: “As a matter of best practice, whenever a council officer intends to investigate a particular service user through social media, rather than conducting a general sweep of social media sites, an appropriate RIPSA authorisation should be complete.”

On social media, the policy sparked anger as it was branded "creepy", with some people condemning the move as "shocking". However, East Lothian Council insisted it was introduced as it was required by local authority inspectors. It said the legislation was originally created for police and counter-terrorism but also applies to local authorities.

A spokesperson said: “Although East Lothian Council has never used covert identities for social media as part of an investigation, and is highly unlikely to do so, a policy must be put in place to include all eventualities even if they are not used.”

Councillor Willie Innes, council leader, said the policy would protect staff and was simply the council acting responsibly. He said: “We are using all mechanisms possible to protect the public and the public expect us to do that, as well as ensuring people’s privacy is maintained.”

Councillor Stuart Currie, SNP opposition leader, said while the measures appeared draconian they were, in reality, the council catching up with social media. He said: “We are only going to use these sorts of powers when it is appropriate. It is about prevention of crime and protecting the public.”