London: British councils conduced mass covert surveillance on citizens over the course of five years for crimes ranging from dog fouling to pigeon feeding, the media reported.
The councils were authorised to carry out more than 55,000 days of covert surveillance during which spying was conducted with secret listening devices, cameras and private detectives, according to a report in the Guardian on Sunday.
A huge freedom of information request from the Liberal Democrats showed that 186 of the 283 councils had used the government’s Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) to gather evidence in covert surveillance.
A total of 2,800 separate surveillance operations took place during that time, lasting up to 90 days each.
Among the detailed examples provided were Midlothian council monitoring dog barking and Allerdale borough council investigating who was guilty of feeding pigeons.
In Wolverhampton city, the authorities used covert surveillance to check on the sale of dangerous toys and car clocking — adjusting the mileage on a car’s odometre.
Slough used Ripa to aid an investigation into an illegal puppy farm whereas Westminster used it to crack down on the selling of fireworks to children.
The freedom of information request also revealed a number of examples of councils using Ripa as a way of checking up on benefit claimants.
The Lancaster city council used the act, in 2012, for “targeted dog fouling enforcement” in two hotspots over 11 days.
However, a British governement spokeswoman said that the law had since changed and Ripa could only now be used if criminal activity was suspected.
Critics said that Ripa was purportedly intended only to be used when absolutely necessary to protect British citizens from extreme threats such as terrorism, not for petty crimes, the Guardian noted.
Brian Paddick, the Liberal Democrats peer who represents the party on home affairs, said: “It is absurd that local authorities are using measures primarily intended for combating terrorism for issues as trivial as a dog barking. Spying on the public should be a last resort not an everyday tool.”
However, a Home Office spokesperson said that Ripa was “an important tool that local authorities can use to address the issues that affect many people’s lives”.
The spokespeson said that local authorities should only use it when it is “both necessary and proportionate to do so”.
Paddick said that the new Investigatory Powers Act, which will take in Ripa powers alongside a raft of new measures, would restrict the ability of local authorities to monitor people’s communications.
But he also said it would give “mass surveillance powers to a huge number of government bodies”.
The new Investigatory Powers Act faced difficulties after the EU’s highest court ruled last week that “general and indiscriminate retention” of emails and electronic communications was illegal.