Government Surveillance in United Kingdom Gets Scrutinized

By Matthew Harwood

A recent incident in the United Kingdom has led to rising public concern over the government's extraordinary power to single out citizens for surveillance for suspicion of the slightest infractions, reports The New York Times.

Local officials of the Poole Borough Council suspected that Jenny Paton has falsified her address to get her daughter into a neighborhood school inside its jurisdiction. Rather than ask Paton where she lived, the council set up a covert surveillance operation to find the information out themselves, including obtaining her telephone records and having a local officer from the education department follow the mother of three for three weeks in 2008.

The surveillance uncovered nothing wrong and Paton's daughter was allowed into the school. Paton only learned of the surveillance after she was summoned to the school to discuss her daughter's application. During the meeting, the officials presented Paton and her partner with the surveillance information they gathered as well as a warning for others. Paton, according to the Times, says the officials told her "You go and tell your friends that these are the powers we have."

And because of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), the local officials seem to be correct, reports the Times.

In a way, that is true: under a law enacted in 2000 to regulate surveillance powers, it is legal for localities to follow residents secretly. Local governments regularly use these surveillance powers — which they “self-authorize,” without oversight from judges or law enforcement officers — to investigate malfeasance like illegally dumping industrial waste, loan-sharking and falsely claiming welfare benefits.

But they also use them to investigate reports of noise pollution and people who do not clean up their dogs’ waste. Local governments use them to catch people who fail to recycle, people who put their trash out too early, people who sell fireworks without licenses, people whose dogs bark too loudly and people who illegally operate taxicabs.

Under RIPA, local authorities can also secretly videotape their targets; rummage through their communications traffic, such as phone calls and Web site visits; and use undercover agents against them, reports the Times. A report this summer from the Chief Surveillance Commissioner Sir Christopher Rose to the House of Commons reported that nearly 10,000 "directed surveillance" authorizations were granted to public authorities, like local governments, for the year ending in March.

The Poole Borough Council justified its use of secret surveillance, telling the Times it has caught people illegally fishing in its harbor and successfully prosecuted them.

Paton's determination to get answers surrounding the incident has paid off. In November, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, which handles RIPA complaints and normally convenes in secret, will hold an open hearing regarding Paton's complaints.

A 2007 report from Privacy International, a human rights organization, labels the United Kingdom an "endemic surveillance society."

♦ Photo of graffiti by Skip the Budgie/Flickr


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