Last year, the Poole Borough Council in the UK targeted for surveillance a family suspected of living in the wrong school zone. The council used powers it had under the 2000 Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), a law targeted toward terrorism and organized crime. 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.
In the Poole case, Jenny Paton (the mother under surveillance) went to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, which investigates complaints about RIPA. The tribunal agreed to have a public hearing, and it has begun in the UK. The Daily Mail has an update on the case:
A council which used controversial laws to spy on a mother and her family 21 times in three weeks insisted today that its actions only ‘minimally’ invaded their privacy. […]
Ms Paton, 40, had branded the authority ‘ludicrous and completely outrageous’ as she took the authority to court for its use of Ripa legislation. […]
The hearing comes as it was learned that a new use will be found for the Act. Investigators will be given access to the phone and internet records of thousands of fathers who lie about their wealth or refuse to co-operate with the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission.
Gordon Nardell, representing the family, yesterday told the hearing’s judging panel: ‘The complainants have and were found to have played by the rules but this local authority played fast and loose.’
He said the case was about ‘liberty’ and the ‘extraordinary powers’ of local authorities.
There has been much controversy over local councils’ use of RIPA powers to investigate minor offenses. 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.”
Last week, the Home Office announced it will curb some powers it had given to local councils under RIPA. The Guardian reported, “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.” Also, “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.”