Concerns grow over snooping watchdog

monitors.jpgBy Michael Peel | Britain may have sleepwalked into a surveillance society, but you would not know that from the watchdog supposed to stop it happening. Seven-and-a-half years and more than 600 cases into its life, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal — which deals with public complaints about unreasonable official snooping — has upheld just a single claim.

The disclosure comes amid growing concerns about the use of tough surveillance powers by hundreds of local councils and other authorities to monitor petty street crime, boat-owners accused of illegal fishing, and even parents suspected of lying about their addresses to get their children into better schools.

The Investigatory Powers Tribunal told the Financial Times it had backed just one complaint about unwarranted official spying since it was set up in October 2000. Up to December 2006 it had dealt with 554 cases, a number that is likely to have risen by at least 100 since then.

Privacy campaigners say the tribunal’s reluctance to uphold complaints is a sign that there are too few safeguards against misuse of broad-ranging surveillance laws brought in by the government.

Simon Davies, director of Privacy International, a pressure group, said a lack of funding meant the tribunal had never “produced a finding that is of any value to anybody whatever”.

“All of these bodies that proclaim oversight function suffer from the same symptom: they were never expected to do anything dynamic.”

Richard Thomas, the information commissioner, has warned that Britain has sleepwalked into a “surveillance society” without much debate about what has happened. According to Mr Thomas, each person has their image captured on average 300 times a day by closed-circuit television cameras, while car number plate readers are forecast to take 50m pictures a day this year.

Almost nothing is known about the surveillance complaints that come before the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, as it does not make its rulings public and does not tell unsuccessful claimants why their claims were rejected. Even the ruling made in the case of the successful claim remains confidential.

Although the tribunal said it had made six judgments that would be published because they dealt with important points of law, only one of these — dating back to 2006 — is available on the website so far. David Payne, tribunal secretary, said “resource problems” at the tribunal meant it had not yet had time to post the others, although it would do so in due course.

The tribunal monitors the use of the 2000 Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which gives almost 800 agencies — including the country’s 474 local councils — powers to conduct surveillance and access communication records, as well as giving a more limited number of authorities, including the security services and the Scottish Executive, the right to intercept telephone and e-mail traffic.

The diverse areas in which “necessary” and “proportionate” surveillance is permitted under the act include tax collecting, protecting public health and safeguarding “the interests of the economic well-being of the UK”.

A local authority in Poole, Dorset, has come under fire in the past few weeks for its vigorous use of snooping powers, including to work out the school catchment area a family lived in and to identify the people responsible for repeatedly damaging an apartment door entry system.