27 May 2015

How councils were given 42,000 days to spy on public

Pigeon feeders and drivers were among thousands of surveillance targets approved by courts under legislation expected to be strengthened by the government’s so-called “snooper’s charter”.

The surveillance targets, who included pigeon feeders and drivers parked in disabled parking bays, were mostly approved by courts under the controversial regulatory investigative powers act (RIPA), which is expected to be boosted by the government’s investigatory powers bill that privacy campaigners are calling the new “snooper’s charter”.

Figures obtained by freedom of information requests made to local authorities across England, Wales and Scotland between April 2012 and January 2015 found that local authorities accrued over 42,000 days on direct and covert surveillance operations authorised by RIPA.

In 2012 the law was amended to limit disproportionate use by local authorities. Now councils have to apply to magistrates’ courts for permission to use RIPA powers on operations that involve directed and covert surveillance.

However, several councils have disclosed that operations lasted fewer days than they requested powers, raising concerns that they may be given more powers than necessary.

Reviews

At present there are two major independent reviews into RIPA still to be published. Channel 4 News understands that No. 10 has been sitting on the independent review into RIPA by David Anderson QC for almost a month. A further report is expected in the next few months from the Royal United Services Institute.

Legal experts told Channel 4 News that they believed RIPA is too broad a cornerstone law of state surveillance and has created a two tier system of rights.

At present, material that would ordinarily be protected from the state without a warrant, such as paper correspondence or pictures, may be obtained, if digitised or online, with far more ease. This means a photograph kept in an old shoe box may have more rights from state interference than a photograph on Facebook and this rights inequality extends across all forms of data.

The inequality of rights makes digital material such as communications data more vulnerable to interference. In contrast to councils, the other arms of the state do not need to apply to the courts for powers which campaigners say has been exploited by the police and security services.

Carly Nyst, from Privacy International, told Channel 4 News that judicial oversight should be extended for all use of RIPA as a further protection for citizens from unnecessary state interference.

It was also revealed that police officers had breached both legal and journalistic precedents, as well as breaching privacy between lawyers and their clients and using the law to uncover journalists’ sources.

Protest groups

Campaigners like Nyst have expressed concern that new legislation announced in the Queen’s Speech to empower the security services and law enforcement agencies may be used against protest groups.

However former Home Office minister and adviser on security to Gordon Brown, Admiral Lord West, who first tried to introduce similar legislation in the last Labour government, told Channel 4 News that a new communications data bill – or its revised version, the investigatory powers bill – is overdue for keeping Britain safe.

Admiral Lord West expressed concern over a rocky legislative process and said that if a bill did not go through, the end result could be emergency legislation which prevents necessary public debate and thorough public policy.

Snooping

“Nobody wants to be snooped but of course that’s not what it is [communications data bill]. That’s a corrosive term that’s dead easy to use. Without these things people would be at more risk, people smugglers, really nasty criminals what get away [with crimes]. Do we really want to allow a whole domain where criminals and these sort of people can talk to each other where we don’t allow our law enforcement agencies to go at all?”

Yesterday Channel 4 News revealed that 115 Islamic State group fighters and supporters had already moved to encrypted chat messengers that are beyond state interception, making the communications data bill powerless as a method of intelligence on their activities unless it includes a provision to ban such apps.

Intel fears as jihadis flock to encrypted apps like Surespot

Use of RIPA has been a contentious issue for councils in recent years and it is likely the number of days accrued from RIPA authorisations far exceeds 42,000 as the figure excludes operations from 134 councils which failed to respond.

However despite the disclosures by several councils that they may have been permitted more days than they needed to exert special surveillance powers the overall use of RIPA by local authorities may have dropped since the law was reformed to ensure courts had final say on authorisations.

Legitimate tool

From FOI respondents the local authority with the highest use of RIPA across the UK was Warrington Council, which had at least 69 operations that accrued 6,357 days in the time requested from April 2012. Warrington Council revealed that although granted powers for actual operations, “days when surveillance would have taken place … would be far fewer in number’.

A council spokesperson said: “We have used RIPA powers to recover fraudulently claimed benefits and for trading standards investigations, including the sale of tobacco to minors. We use this legitimate tool in combating crime and always use our powers responsibly, following the rules governing the use of the powers. We have been audited by the Office of Surveillance Commissioners (responsible for overseeing the use of covert surveillance by designated public authorities) who endorsed our use of the RIPA powers to date.”

The Local Government Association said “councils take people’s right to privacy very seriously but sometimes the use of surveillance is the only way they can protect public safety and ensure criminals are bought to justice”.