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BBW grim on RIPA

The Protection of Freedoms Act introduced a long overdue needed safeguard against unwarranted local authority surveillance, with councils now required to seek a magistrate’s approval to use powers under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA). However, local authorities are only the tip of the iceberg, warn the civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch. Before further surveillance law is considered we need to go back to the drawing board and have a comprehensive review of RIPA and its failings, according to BBW.

 

 

For the report in full visit the BBW website – http://www.bigbrotherwatch.org.uk//files/ripa/RIPA_Aug12_final.pdf

 

The latest BBW report, on RIPA, says: “Public authorities, many of which serve no law enforcement function, are able to use the same powers to put members of the public under surveillance. While many would claim they are only doing so in the case of specific investigations, they are denying access to the information that supports this assertion. Others simply refuse to confirm or disclose any details of how they are using these powers.

 

“The legislative framework of surveillance does not offer proper safeguards against abuse or transparency. It is absurd that the regulation of the test purchase of a puppy falls under the same legislation that governs when security services can intercept communications. It is dangerous that organisations do not even have to confirm if, how or why they have used these powers when they potentially involve very intrusive surveillance.

 

“The need for a comprehensive overhaul of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and surveillance framework is, in our view, the only viable long-term solution. It is a foundation that is not fit for purpose and attempting to address the clear deficiencies in RIPA with piecemeal amendments in other pieces of legislation will only exacerbate an already complicated and dysfunctional legal framework.

 

Public authorities that confirmed to BBW they have undertaken RIPA investigations include the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). The BBC, Ofsted, the Royal Mail and the Office for Fair Trading were among seven public bodies that refused to say how often, for what purpose and what type of surveillance they have undertaken. 

 

Some 345 local authorities in Great Britain have conducted RIPA surveillance operations in 9607 cases in the past three years. Some 26 local authorities used RIPA to spy on dog owners to see whose animals were responsible for dog fouling; and seven local authorities have used their powers to investigated suspected breaches of the smoking ban. BBW pointed out that most organisations do not use RIPA powers, although legally entitled to do so. However, a number of bodies have actively used these powers during the past three years. As with local authorities, these investigations have BBW said frequently been targeted at non-serious offences far beyond the original purpose of RIPA.

 

Communities minister Eric Pickles in a foreword to the report said: “I welcome this research by Big Brother Watch, highlighting how public bodies are hiding how they use RIPA and reminding us about the importance of monitoring how town halls may continue to use these powers under the new tougher laws. For public bodies, funded by and working for the taxpayer, to be using RIPA yet so vociferously trying to avoid accountability is simply unacceptable. The Coalition Government rightly took action to ensure local authorities were not able to abuse these serious powers. Now it is right that Big Brother Watch looks at other public authorities who are able to use these powers but do so without any judicial oversight or transparency.

 

“From the BBC to Ofsted, the Royal Mail to the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, public bodies should be transparent about why there are using these powers. It is important that the public can have faith that surveillance powers are being used only in those situations where serious crimes are taking place and when there are no less intrusive alternative routes of investigation. That’s why we need robust accountability of all state bodies, not just local authorities, to ensure these state powers are not used without proper justification, and I welcome Big Brother Watch’s continuing scrutiny and challenge.” 

 

Background

 

RIPA covers a range of surveillance powers including phone tapping, opening of mail, bugging or secretly filming suspects in their homes, having people followed and using informants to provide information.

 

Since RIPA came into force in October 2000, there have been at least 2.7 million surveillance decisions.Communications data requests alone have run to almost one million in the past two years. More than 20,000 warrants for the interception of phone calls, emails, and Internet use have been issued and intrusive surveillance has been authorised on more than 4,000 authorisations. At least 30,000 authorisations for directed surveillance have been signed.The Protection of Freedoms Act, which became law in May 2012, has curtailed the ability of local authorities to use RIPA powers, requiring that the authority seeks approval from a magistrate before commencing any surveillance.

 

RIPA regulates the use of a number of covert investigatory techniques, not all of which are available to local authorities. The three types of technique available to local authorities are: the acquisition and disclosure of communications data (such as telephone billing information or subscriber details); directed surveillance (covert surveillance of individuals in public places); and covert human intelligences sources (CHIS) such as the deployment of undercover officers. Surveillance can include monitoring, observing or listening to persons, their movements, conversations or other activities. Councils, and not the police, are responsible for enforcing the law in areas such as: environmental crime; consumer scams; loan sharks; taxi cab regulation; underage sales of knives, alcohol, solvents and tobacco; and the employment of minors.


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