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Should Hampshire Police and Southampton City Council have 'snooping' powers?
IT is more than 65 years since George Orwell created the concept of the all-seeing Big Brother for his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Big Brother was one of the devices used by the totalitarian state to keep its citizens on side and in line.
The novel turned out to be a chilling prophecy of things to come.
And today it seems we have never been more at risk of being observed in our daily activities.
The growth of closed-circuit television, which seems to follow our every move, has been shadowed by a rise in the use of covert monitoring by police and councils.
Terrorism Anyone suspected of committing an offence – from serious crimes including terrorism to what some would consider to be no more than minor misdemeanours – could have their emails read, their phone calls monitored or even be filmed secretly.
The controversial practices are used dozens of times a week in Hampshire, a new report by a surveillance watchdog revealed this week.
The Interception of Communications Commissioner showed that police in Hampshire monitored emails and phone calls 24 times every day over the course of 2013.
It also revealed that Southampton City Council used the surveillance powers 81 times last year – the third most of any council.
The commissioner Sir Anthony May has called for an inquiry into the snooping, and campaigners have today made renewed calls to curb its use.
The powers to intercept communications were brought in under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act in 2000 with the intention of tackling terrorism.
They allow public bodies such as police forces and councils to request authorisation from the Government to find out who owns a phone, email address or computer IP address, who they were communicating with, where they used their device, and when.
But they are not able to find out what was said in the communication.
Public bodies can only ask to access the information in the interest of national security, to detect crime, prevent disorder or a risk to public safety or public health, or in the interests of the country’s economic well-being.
Sir Anthony found that authorities had made 514,608 requests for communications last year, compared to 570,135 in 2012 and 494,078 in 2011.
The commissioner is now calling for his inspectors to look into the practice, and see if it is being “over-used” by authorities throughout the country.
Hampshire police used the powers 8,818 times in 2013 – almost 170 times every week.
The police have said the powers were “carefully used and moderated” but refused to provide further details on their use due to operational reasons.
Southampton City Council used them 81 times, having only used them 20 times in 2010-11, 36 in 2009-10 and 26 in 2008-09.
The council was unable to provide a comment on what the powers were used for, or why there had been such a big rise, as the two members of staff who dealt with surveillance were not available.
But the council has previously used the powers to investigate blue parking badge fraud, identifying people responsible for criminal damage, the sale of alcohol or fireworks to underage youngsters, benefit fraud and environmental crime.
Council leader Simon Letts defended the council’s use of the practice, saying: “To my understanding, we will use these powers when we think the public purse is being defrauded.
“No one wants people to be fraudulently claiming housing benefit or other benefits.”
Southampton City Council leader Simon Letts
But the practice has proven controversial, with civil liberties groups calling for a curb on its use after a number of high-profile cases.
Poole Borough Council used the powers to spy on Jenny Paton’s family 21 times to see if they lived in the right school catchment area.
The council had received calls from members of the public claiming that the family was not living in their property within the catchment area of an over-subscribed school, instead residing in another property they owned.
But the council was reprimanded for not using the powers properly by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, and that surveillance had breached the family’s right to privacy.
The same council also used the tactics to spy on fishermen suspected of illegally harvesting shellfish in Poole Harbour.
Following Mr May’s report, there have been renewed calls for Government action over the “over-use” of surveillance.
Emma Carr, deputy director of civil liberties pressure group Big Brother Watch, said: “The Government needs to urgently address the fact that the Commissioner has grounds to believe some powers are institutionally overused and that the records kept by public authorities are woefully inadequate.
“This does not require new legislation and should not wait until after the election in May 2015.
Emma Carr, of Big Brother Watch
“The fact that this report does not include the number of British citizens affected by these powers, or any meaningful detail on what sort of offences are being investigated, is not good enough.
“This report shows that it is possible to be more transparent about how surveillance powers are used without jeopardising security, but there is much more than can and should be done to reassure the public.”
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