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Councils launch eight spying ops on Brits A DAY using RIPA

Law designed for spooks, used against smokers

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Blighty's councils are conducting an average of eight covert surveillance operations A DAY using laws intended to regulate serious crime investigations.

Kent County Council is the worst offender, clocking up 315 operations in three years, according to a survey of spying requests made under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA).

The act, better known as "the snooper's charter", regulates the interception of email and telephone communications for national security investigations - but its broad remit encompasses interceptions and surveillance operations involving "preventing or detecting crime or preventing disorder".

Public bodies regulated by RIPA to conduct surveillance operations include The Post Office, the BBC, the Environment Agency, health authorities, and any local authority. The act allows such a broad interpretation of the justification to snoop on citizens that councils effectively gained powers to monitor social behaviour such as smoking and dog fouling.

The number of oral requests by public bodies - typically when a cop or official urgently phones an appointed RIPA point-of-contact to authorise a snooping operation - rose from 21,582 in 2009 to 31,210, the last year for which numbers are available.

Big Brother Watch, which compiled the survey, says the law is too broad.

"It is absurd that the regulation of the test purchase of a puppy [by council officials] falls under the same legislation that governs when security services can intercept communications," says Big Bro Watch's Nick Pickles in the report. "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."

"It is simply unacceptable for organisations to use RIPA powers to spy on the public while avoiding accountability for how and why they do."

The report recommends that judicial authorisation of surveillance should be extended to cover all public authorities, and bodies whose surveillance falls under RIPA's remit should be obliged to publish why they used it. The BBC and the Department of Business are amongst several organisations that have refused to say why they applied for a surveillance operation under the snooper's act. Big Brother Watch also recommends that individuals should be notified once an operation has been concluded if no charges have been forthcoming. The Home Office has agreed that RIPA needs tightening up.

The number of local authority surveillance operations requested under the RIPA framework is dwarfed by the surveillance conducted by tax authorities, spooks and law enforcement. However, public bodies are demanding new powers under new web snooping laws.

You can download the Big Bro Watch report from here. ®

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