Under the previous government, legislation designed to combat terrorism and serious crime was utilised by local councils to spy on residents for trivial matters such as school catchment areas and putting rubbish bins out too early. In their coalition agreement, the two parties in power promised to roll back the unnecessary, intrusive use of these powers, but unfortunately the reality has been very different.
Last year, public bodies made 552,550 requests under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) to request access to confidential communications data. This is a 5% increase from 2009 and a massive 10% increase from the 504,073 requests in 2008. Although the majority are from police and security services, 1,809 were made by local authorities, an increase from 1,756 requests last year.
As well as the rise in the use of the RIPA, the results revealed there were over 1,700 errors amongst the requests. This can lead to the monitoring of incorrect numbers or email addresses, affecting innocent people who are not connected to any investigation.
Conservative MP Dominic Raab, who is a staunch supporter of civil liberties, said:
“This disturbing data demonstrates the importance of the coalition's Freedom Bill – to reverse the legacy of Labour's surveillance society.”
Christopher Graham, the Information Commissioner, has already revealed that surveillance technology is advancing at such a rapid rate that regulators are finding it almost impossible to deal with the changes. He claimed that recent changes had seen snooping techniques “intensify and expand” to the point where watchdogs do not fully understand the methods utilised under the act.
The Coalition proposal to require all local council use of the RIPA to be sanctioned by a magistrate is currently going through Parliament, but the increasing use of the powers highlights the necessity to enforce tight regulation on these intrusive measures which should only ever have been used to combat terrorism and serious crime as they were intended.