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    New York Times: Britons Weary of Surveillance in Minor Cases

    The New York Times has a story about an issue I’ve written about before: A disturbing trend of local councils in the United Kingdom using the 2000 Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) to track or prosecute minor offenses, such as littering. 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 New York Times reports on the Poole Borough Council, which last year targeted for surveillance a family suspected of living in the wrong school zone.

    Suspecting [Jenny Paton, a 40-year-old mother of three,] of falsifying her address to get her daughter into the neighborhood school, local officials here began a covert surveillance operation. They obtained her telephone billing records. And for more than three weeks in 2008, an officer from the Poole education department secretly followed her, noting on a log the movements of the “female and three children” and the “target vehicle” (that would be Ms. Paton, her daughters and their car).

    It turned out that Ms. Paton had broken no rules. Her daughter was admitted to the school. But she has not let the matter rest. Her case, now scheduled to be heard by a regulatory tribunal, has become emblematic of the struggle between personal privacy and the ever more powerful state here. […]

    The whole process is so shrouded in mystery that few people ever take it this far. “Because no one knows you have a right to know you’re under surveillance,” Ms. Paton said, “nobody ever makes a complaint.”

    The New York Times explains:

    The law in question is known as the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, or RIPA, and it also gives 474 local governments and 318 agencies — including the Ambulance Service and the Charity Commission — powers once held by only a handful of law enforcement and security service organizations.

    Under the law, the localities and agencies can film people with hidden cameras, trawl through communication traffic data like phone calls and Web site visits and enlist undercover “agents” to pose, for example, as teenagers who want to buy alcohol. […]

    The fuss over the law comes against a backdrop of widespread public worry about an increasingly intrusive state and the growing circulation of personal details in vast databases compiled by the government and private companies.

    “Successive U.K. governments have gradually constructed one of the most extensive and technologically advanced surveillance systems in the world,” the House of Lords Constitution Committee said in a recent report. It continued: “The development of electronic surveillance and the collection and processing of personal information have become pervasive, routine and almost taken for granted.”

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