The dangers of state surveillance
By Henry Porter
Encouraged by terror laws, the authorities are increasingly using surveillance techniques in trivial circumstances
The abuse of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, Ripa, is by far the largest element in the revelation last August that 500,000 official requests to access phone and email records were made in 2008 – the equivalent of one in 78 adults coming under some form of surveillance by the authorities in the United Kingdom.
The issue here is about abuse and proportionality, not whether the law has been broken. Two recent reports suggest that the surveillance of people for misdemeanours is unlikely to decline despite assurances from the government and Home Office that local authorities were being reined in.
A freedom of information request by the Lancashire Evening Post has found that applications made by Lancashire county council under Ripa laws targeted cleaners who failed to show up for work and a care assistant who claimed too much on travel expenses. “A person in Chorley thought to be selling counterfeit goods via eBay, people pursuing false personal injury claims, and a retailer selling furniture not up to fire safety standards were among those investigated using powers granted under the act,” the paper reported.
In last year’s annual report, the surveillance commissioner, Sir Christopher Rose, raised concerns about direct surveillance such as the bugging of public places, taking photographs of suspects and the use of covert human intelligence such as informants and undercover agents. Of course this has always been part of police investigation into serious crime, but it is frightening to see these tactics routinely deployed in trivial circumstances.
His fears came to mind when I read a quote in the LEP from Jim Potts, a trading standards officer, who said: “We have simply recorded that a member of staff has seen another member of staff do something at work, in the way that managers can and do every day.” How easily that trips from Potts’s lips, but what of course he is unwittingly justifying is the informant society. In Staffordshire a FoI request made of the police by the Express and Star newspaper found that terror laws were being used to monitor drug dealers, people suspected of sex crimes, burglars and thieves. In 10 cases police tracked people suspected of minor public order offences.
Most people accept, I believe wrongly, that this is part of the modern world but Staffordshire police do not reveal the number of convictions gained by these activities – a vital omission if we are to assess proportionality and effectiveness, or indeed to make larger judgments as to whether terror laws have been allowed to undermine essential values in our society.