9 Jan 2019

Government to question MBIE over fake persona training

4:54 pm on 9 January 2019

The Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE) is being summoned to the Beehive for a 'please explain' over a training course in using fake online personas to gather intelligence.

Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment

Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

MBIE signed a contract with Wellington based consultancy ZX Security in December 2017 that has been published on the Ministry's website and outlines the details of the social media training course.

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

Ministry staff have received training on how to spot a fake profile, maintain multiple identities using "techniques for creating a backstop (history) for your online personas", and send and receive anonymous text messages and emails.

The contract also offered optional training modules, including automated harvesting, image metadata analysis, and creating a dossier.

To date, no MBIE staff had done the extra modules.

"During this workshop the attendees will use the skills gained during the course to create a detailed dossier on a group or individual," the contract says.

It even includes training on how to identify people based on their usage of language.

The deal with ZX Security expires in 2021 and is worth $112,000 plus GST. The full or advanced classes were estimated at a cost of $6895 per 10 attendees, plus a fixed $840 fee for training outside Wellington.

Last month, a report by the State Services Commission was critical of government agencies' use of a private security firm and urged all government departments to meet strict new standards by the end of April.

The government's duty minister, Iain Lees-Galloway, said the ministry was reviewing the course to make sure it met the new rules.

He said department officials would meet with ministers at the Beehive to explain.

"Before we pass judgment we need to hear directly from MBIE exactly what was going on and what were the purpose(s) of the training..."

"What is important for us is that any of these types of activities adhere to those new guidelines - those new guidelines have been set in place because this government does have concerns with prior practices," he said.

Mr Lees-Galloway was not sure if the ministry's staff actually created fake profiles after the training.

ZX Security said it wouldn't be making any comment.

An MBIE spokesperson said it had strict controls in place when it came to the use of digital media for both verification and investigation purposes, and they were strictly adhered to.

They said in limited circumstances MBIE may use digital media to assist in verification and investigative practices, using publically available information.

The contract with ZX Security was still in operation and due to expire on 31 March 2021, and the ministry was reviewing its current arrangements to make sure it was meeting the recommendations from the State Services Commission's inquiry.

About 70 staff working in areas including Immigration New Zealand, Radio Spectrum Management and the Immigration Advisers Authority had completed the advanced social media search training course.