Snooping councils, phone hacking, CCTV… time to reform surveillance laws?

JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organisation, has today published a significant and wide-ranging critique of state surveillance powers contained in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA).

The report – Freedom from Suspicion – Surveillance Reform for a Digital Ageis by Eric Metcalfe, former director of JUSTICE and recently returned to practise as a barrister. It reveals some pretty stunning statistics:  for example, in total, there have been close to three million decisions taken by public bodies under RIPA in the last decade.

The report is highly critical of the legislation, which it argues is “neither forward-looking nor human rights compliant“. Its “poor drafting has allowed councils to snoop, phone hacking to flourish, privileged conversations to be illegally recorded, and CCTV to spread.” Metcalfe recommends, unsurprisingly, “root-and-branch” reform.

RIPA powers are to be curtailed through the Protection of Freedoms Bill (see this summary post by Obiter J) but Metcalfe argues that even if these are enacted, “RIPA will continue to provide a wholly inadequate legal framework for surveillance“.

The history of RIPA is interesting from a human rights perspective, as it was passed in direct response to a European Court of Human Rights ruling as well as the Human Rights Act itself. For more on the history of the act, as well as its central role in the phone hacking scandal, see my post: Was it human rights wot won the phone hacking scandal? 

The Executive Summary and a Scribd version of the report are reproduced below:

• In 2000, Parliament enacted RIPA. At the time, it was acclaimed by government ministers as human rights-compliant, forward-looking legislation.

• Since RIPA came into force in 2000, there have been:

– more than 20,000 warrants for the interception of phone calls, emails, and Internet use;

– at least 2.7 million requests for communications data, including phone bills and location data;

– more than 4,000 authorisations for intrusive surveillance, eg, planting bugs in someone’s house

or car;

– at least 30,000 authorisations for directed surveillance, eg, following someone’s movements in

public, or watching their house.

• In total, there have been close to three million decisions taken by public bodies under RIPA in the last decade.

• This does not even begin to include the number of warrants and authorisations on behalf of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, which have never been made public.

• Of the decisions we do know about, fewer than 5,000 (about 0.16 per cent) were approved by a judge.

• The main complaints body under RIPA, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, has dealt with only 1,100 cases in the last decade.

• In the last decade, it has upheld only ten complaints.

• Surveillance is a necessary activity in the fight against serious crime. It is a vital part of our national security. It has saved countless lives and helped convict hundreds of thousands of criminals.

• Unnecessary and excessive surveillance, however, destroys our privacy and blights our freedoms.

• RIPA has not only failed to check a great deal of plainly excessive surveillance by public bodies over the last decade but, in many cases, inadvertently encouraged it. Its poor drafting has allowed councils to snoop, phone hacking to flourish, privileged conversations to be illegally recorded, and CCTV to spread. It is also badly out of date.

• RIPA is neither forward-looking nor human rights compliant. Piecemeal amendments are no longer enough for what is already a piecemeal Act. Root-and-branch reform of the law on surveillance is needed to provide freedom from unreasonable suspicion, and put in place truly effective safeguards against the abuse of what are necessary powers.

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5 thoughts on “Snooping councils, phone hacking, CCTV… time to reform surveillance laws?

  1. This is a very interesting and welcome report. I agree that RIPA needs a root and branch reform. However it repeats a common misconception that RIPA is abused by local authorities. This myth is also the basis of the reforms set out in the Protection of Freedoms Bill which will severely curtail councils power to use RIPA. See my analysis and argument that the Bill is a sledgehammer to crack a nut:

    http://www.informationlaw.org.uk/page18.htm

  2. “The headline ‘Anti-terror law used against dog fouling encapsulates in a few words all that is worst in popular journalism,” said Sir Christopher “It is inaccurate,emotive and grossly misleading.The legislation is, expressly, for many purposes other than fighting terrorism.” He said he understood that “dog excrement carries a parasite which can cause blindness in children. On this basis I suspect that a reasonable,well informed member of the public would approve of covert surveillance necessary to reduce dog fouling in children’s playgrounds.”

    The above quote has been taken from the speech given by the so-called surveillance commissioner. This individual has ostensibly been charged with protecting citizens from unnecessary State surveillance. And yet this man condones intrusive legislation that permits unnecessary surveillance for minor offences or even non-offences. The media got it right in my view when it criticised the use of RIPA by local authorities. Dog-fouling is not a serious crime that warrants surveillance. Drug smuggling/dealing, terrorism, and organised crime does justify surveillance. I suspect Local Authorities spend significant sums of taxpayers’ money on surveillance, including the use of private detective agencies, in pursuit of minor transgressors. There is a distinct lack of transparency and accountability with their surveillance decisions which makes it possible for individuals in Local Authorities to pursue their own agendas and vendettas. Oversight by a magistrate is therefore a necessary, although not a sufficient, step to bring these over mighty town hall bureaucrats to book.

  3. The Protection of Freedoms Bill – (a misnomer if ever there was one) – is inadequate in this area and in so many others. RIPA certainly does require a through overhual.

    In relation to CCTV cameras, the Bill actually will do almost nothing to alter present practice. The number of cameras is certainly not going to reduce and events such as the disorder in August have convinced many people that more of them are needed.

    I agree with Stephen that oversight by a magistrate is some form of control over local authority decisions but, let’s be honest here, most will be nodded through.

  4. I entirely agree. I am a Targeted Individual and I have been under surveillance for 11 years. The wide ranging abuse now extends to electronic warfare; and no body, politician, group or otherwise is willing to help deal with this problem. The public knows only of the tip of the iceberg.

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