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Do councils use technology to spy on residents too much?
5:00pm Wednesday 2nd July 2014 in News
YES says Emma Carr, acting director of Big Brother Watch, a pressure group set up in 2009 to challenge policies it believes threatens privacy, freedoms and civil liberties in the digital age
It is undoubtedly true that many councils around the UK have far more surveillance tools than required to keep the local community safe.
Whether it is the use of hundreds of CCTV cameras or the powers to enter your home or business without a warrant, many of the tools were created with the intention that they would be used to detect the most serious crimes and offences rather than to snoop on normal members of the public.
Take the primary surveillance legislation in the UK, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, which was created to help catch individuals involved in the most serious crimes, such as terrorism or paedophile offences.
- Emma Carr
That same legislation is now being used by almost every council across the country to investigate arguably less serious crimes, for example, Oxford City Council has used the powers to spy on people believed to be involved in benefit fraud.
It is clearly absurd that the investigation of benefit fraud by councils falls under the same legislation that governs when security services can intercept communications.
There is also an argument to be made that any form of law enforcement should be left to the police, rather than unaccountable council officials.
In addition to the use of powers under RIPA, there has been an increase in ‘powers of entry’ by councils.
These powers allow council officials to enter your home or business without a warrant for a ‘specific purpose’, which could include undertaking an inspection, dealing with an emergency or searching for evidence.
At present, Oxfordshire County Council has 32 officials who can use these powers of entry, whereas Oxford City Council told us they don’t keep a “composite list” of the number of officers, which in itself is concerning.
The simple fact remains that if councils want to use these powers, they should certainly be more open and transparent about how they are being used.
As standard, any council conducting surveillance, whatever form that may take, should be required to publish standardised information.
This should include what surveillance has taken place, for what sort of offences, when the investigations took place, and whether it led to arrests and convictions.
This would be a badly needed first step towards proper transparency.
It is only then that local people can decide whether the use of these surveillance tools is a good use of council resources and whether any intrusion is worth it for the outcome.
NO says Colin Cook, Oxford City councillor for Jericho and Osney and former executive member for city development
I cannot speak for other councils, but we are not going over the top with our use of this technology.
It is a matter of using technology when it gives you the ability to do things in a less labour-intensive way. There is always a balance to be struck in terms of civil liberties.
As a general rule, we don’t want to collect information for the sake of collecting information. It is about tackling problems in Oxford and one of those problems is beds in sheds.
Technology offers us the opportunity to address problems that we have not been able to do in the past – or has made it easier for us to address those problems going into the future.
- Colin Cook
With regards to the issue of CCTV in taxis, the request for that came from the taxi drivers and we were responding to that.
Taxi drivers wanted CCTV because they were being attacked by their passengers and were losing money when they were being bilked, so they were taking people somewhere and the passenger was not paying and running off.
We are in a position now where there are taxis in the country with audio visual recording going on, but that is being administered by the individual taxi drivers.
We are not interested in using chips to weigh people’s bins like some councils, for example. The technology allows to weigh how much people are throwing away and charge them in proportion to it.
I don’t think we are interested in going down that path because there are too many problems associated with it.
You will end up with people putting their waste into other people’s bins and nonsense like that.
I can’t understand why anyone would be upset with having their house photographed from above, because we have already got things like Google Maps and Google Earth.
I think the only people who would be worried about having their homes photographed from above would be people who have got something to hide.
I don’t see any problem from properties being photographed from the public realm.
Planning officers already have powers to enter a property anyway and I think that, if anything, that is more intrusive.
I don’t think we have used our powers under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which governs surveillance, at all in the last year.