How town hall snoopers hijack anti-terror powers to crack down on do

From: clive.denton@griffin-internet-computing.c

Date: 2008-04-28 12:24:57

How town hall snoopers hijack anti-terror powers to crack down on dog fouling   How town hall snoopers hijack anti-terror powers to crack down on dog fouling By MATTHEW HICKLEY   Surveillance powers designed to track terrorists are being deployed by councils to crack down on littering, dog fouling and planning law breaches, a survey reveals. Its findings expose the vast scale of Big Brother spying by town halls and brought urgent demands for “root and branch” reforms to curb the fast-growing snooping culture. Some councils have used the sweeping powers granted by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) more than 100 times in the last year to follow and watch residents or monitor their calls – often while dealing with the most minor of suspected offences. Their activities emerged weeks after the Daily Mail revealed Poole council in Dorset had spied on a family because it wrongly suspected the parents of abusing rules on school catchment areas. Computer programmer Tim Joyce, 37, Jenny Paton, 39, and their three daughters were subject to an extraordinary operation which saw them tailed round the clock by officials who described the family car as a “target vehicle”. The couple discovered they had been under surveillance for three weeks only when called to a meeting with council officials. According to the survey, they may not have been alone in being watched over such minor matters. While most councils insisted they used secret surveillance to tackle rogue traders, benefit fraud and anti-social behaviour such as criminal damage, others admitted to spying on dog owners and litter louts. Ripa powers, which are available to hundreds of local authorities and other agencies, permit checking private phone or internet records, secretly recording meetings inside suspects’ homes and recruiting “spies” to watch their neighbours. Officials in Derby, Bolton, Gateshead and Hartlepool admitted using covert spying techniques to deal with dog fouling, while Bolton spied on suspected litter louts. Wyre council in Lancashire confirmed it was using plain clothes investigators posing as dog walkers – and equipped with hidden cameras to gather evidence – to watch genuine dog walkers in parks. And officials in Kensington and Chelsea said they had used Ripa powers to spy on a resident suspected of misusing a disabled parking badge. Conwy council in Wales said it spied on an employee who was working while off sick, while Liverpool officials investigated a false claim for damages against the council. Of the 97 councils surveyed, Durham was the biggest user of Ripa powers, with 144 covert investigations in a year. Officials claimed the powers were not being used against “members of the public” but against suspect traders and retailers. Only 19 councils said they did not use the powers at all. Simon Davies, of the Privacy International pressure group, questioned the cost to the taxpayer and called for a review to set “hard limits” to stop councils straying so far beyond the spirit of the Ripa legislation. He added: “Local authorities can be very petty and vindictive, and when they become obsessed with issues like dog fouling there can be a lack of judgment.” Sir Simon Milton, of the Local Government Association, said there were strict rules to protect the public from unnecessary intrusion and called for a national debate on the balance between investigation and privacy.   Find this story at… ©2008 Associated

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