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    Guardian (UK): Councils’ surveillance powers curbed

    After much controversy for the UK government, the Home Secretary has announced it will curb some powers it had given to local councils under the 2000 Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), reports the Guardian. RIPA powers “have been used nearly 50,000 times since 2002 by local councils and health teams.”

    I’ve written before about this disturbing trend of local councils in the United Kingdom using RIPA powers to track or prosecute minor offenses, such as littering. Last week, the New York Times took an in-depth look at the problem, focusing on the Poole Borough Council, which last year targeted for surveillance a family suspected of living in the wrong school zone.

    “The powers were originally publicised as being necessary to tackle terrorism and serious and organised crime,” the Guardian reports. However, “councils have used Ripa powers to investigate dog fouling, check on staff who claim to be off work sick, and even monitor the use of disabled parking badges.”

    A year ago, the Chief Surveillance Commissioner criticized local councils’ actions in a report (pdf). He said some councils displayed “a serious misunderstanding of the concept of proportionality.”

    The Guardian reports on the changes to councils’ RIPA authority:

    Junior council officials are to lose the authority to order surveillance operations including secret filming and eavesdropping for “trivial reasons” such as catching people putting out their rubbish on the wrong day or letting their dogs foul the street.

    In future only council chief executives and directors will have the power to order covert surveillance operations and a new code of practice will ban their use for minor matters.

    MPs are to be given assurances that their communications with constituents are confidential and any eavesdropping by police will need high level authorisation.

    Elected councillors are to be given a role in overseeing the way their local authorities carry out surveillance operations.

    This is good news. However, we should note that last week, the Home Office used a Statutory Instrument (as opposed to new legislation) to extend to local councils and government agencies substantial property seizure powers under the Proceeds of Crime Act (PCA). My analysis of this change, which allows local councils to act independent of police, is here. And here’s a fascinating report from the Mail about a massive raid by police (using PCA powers) to seize 6,717 safety deposit boxes — it turns out only about 10 percent of those boxes were connected to crime.

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