Facebook ‘fair game’ in benefits cheats battle

Sweden's social services have been given the green light to use information found on Facebook and other social media sites to verify whether or not Swedes are being truthful on their applications for benefits.

Facebook 'fair game' in benefits cheats battle

The ruling from the social committee at the National Board of Health and Welfare’s (Socialstyrelsen) council for ethical issues, means that civil servants tasked with reviewing applicants’ suitability to receive benefits are free to compare claims made on application forms to how individuals present themselves online.

“Social services must adapt to the growing number of people using Facebook and similar social media sites to communicate,” wrote the committee in its report.

The health board’s ethical committee looked into the issue after a dilemma arose during a social work student’s internship.

The student was surprised to learn that benefits administrators were inspecting their clients’ profiles on Facebook and on their blogs, and alerted the ethics committee to the controversial practice.

The information found online was used to verify if the clients had been honest about whether or not they were single, for example, and whether they truly were entitled to benefits they had applied to receive.

In the wake of the committee’s ruling, information from Facebook and other sources can now be used during the processing of benefits claims.

“Social services may use any information available to them in their handling of a case. The location of the information is irrelevant,” the council ruled.

The social committee emphasised, however, the need for critical scrutiny of the relevance and source of the information, and furthermore pointed out that information should not be gathered behind the applicants’ back.

“Information from Facebook must – just as any other gathered information – be relevant to the case. It must be assessed and all sources examined,” the committee wrote.

Following the ruling, legal experts have expressed concerns regarding the ethical and practical aspects of the decision.

“Information on Facebook can be distorted, or another person could be responsible for what’s written,” Cecilia Magnusson Sjöberg, professor of law and informatics at Stockholm University, told newspaper Svenska Dagbladet (SvD).

“So it’s not entirely uncomplicated to use it.”

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