Concern over use of ‘snooping’ law

COUNCILS in Suffolk have used controversial covert surveillance rights to “snoop” on people more than 135 times in the last two years, a new report has claimed.

Among those targeted were fly-tippers, suspected bogus callers, housing benefit cheats and, in one case, Suffolk County Council used the law to “test purchase” a puppy.

The report, issued today by the privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch (BBW), has criticised councils, including those in Suffolk and Essex, for their use of powers under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA).

BBW quizzed local authorities in the UK and revealed they had carried out a combined total of 8,527 RIPA surveillance operations since April 1 2008 – an average of 11 operations a day.

Suffolk County Council carried out 75 operations, Ipswich Borough Council 18, Forest Heath District Council 17, St Edmundsbury Borough Council 12, Waveney and Mid Suffolk five each annd Babergh four. Essex County Council completed 68.

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The law, introduced in 2000, gives councils the right to place residents and businesses under surveillance, trace telephone and email accounts and even send staff on covert missions.

Suffolk County Council officials used the act to ‘test purchase a puppy’ to see if it was vacinated as the seller had claimed.

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It was also used to test purchase beds, alcohol, fireworks and tobacco, as well as to tackle fraud and trademark act offences.

However, councils’ powers under the RIPA act look set to be curbed by the new coalition Government, which wants magistrates to decide whether councils can press ahead with operations.

That move was welcomed by Alex Deane, director of BBW, who claimed: “Now that the absurd and excessive use of RIPA surveillance has been revealed, these powers have to be taken away from councils.

“The coalition Government plan to force councils to get warrants before snooping on us is good but doesn’t go far enough.”

Big Brother Watch said that Newcastle-upon-Tyne was the local authority which used the act the most often – 231 times in the space of two years.

Despite the new plans set out by the Government, the report claims that “councils should not have these powers at all”.

It added: “If the alleged wrongdoing is serious enough to merit covert surveillance, then it should be investigated by the police.

“Failing that, the Government’s new proposals should be effected forthwith. Councils should only be permitted to use RIPA powers i) with a warrant obtained from a magistrates’ court and ii) for serious crimes.’’

Suffolk County Council last night declined to comment.

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