Dominic Browne 18 March 2013

Councils accused of illegal 'snooping'

A range of public bodies including 27 councils have been dragged into a row over the use of private detectives, following a report from a civil liberties campaign group.

In total, public bodies have spent more than £3.9m over the last two years paying private investigators, according to Big Brother Watch – with some accused of using security firms to dodge legal restrictions

In a Freedom of Information request, it found 29 public bodies employed outside companies to do surveillance work since 2010, this included the Department for Transport, 27 councils and one public authority.

Big Brother Watch also claimed that some 14 organisations – 10 councils and four public authorities – paid private firms to undertake surveillance that was not covered by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA).

RIPA governs the use of covert techniques by public authorities - allowing actions such as intercepting telephone calls, emails and other communications, covert surveillance and acquiring communications data such as a telephone billing or subscriber details.

Big Brother Watch director, Nick Pickles, said surveillance laws were ‘not fit for purpose’.

‘The Government has acted to control surveillance by local councils but this research shows more than ever before public bodies are using private detectives to do their snooping,’ he said.

‘The law is at breaking point and public bodies shouldn't be able to dodge the legal checks on them by using private investigators.’

Communities secretary Eric Pickles said the government had clamped down on the overuse and abuse of surveillance powers by town halls.

‘Such powers can only be used for serious crimes, and require a magistrates' warrant. It is totally unacceptable if councils are trying to sidestep these important new checks and they should be held to account for acting outside the law,’ he said.

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