Off The Record: How the police use surveillance powers

police-2Today we are publishing a reporthighlighting the true scale of police forces’ use of surveillance powers. The report comes at a time when the powers have faced serious criticism, following revelations that police have used them to access journalists’ phone records.
The research focuses on the use of ‘directed surveillance’ contained in the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) by police forces; a form of covert surveillance conducted in places other than residential premises or private vehicles which is deemed to be non-intrusive, but is still likely to result in personal information about the individual being obtained.
Although the report details how directed surveillance powers were authorised more than 27,000 times over a three year period, police forces are not compelled to record any other statistics; therefore we cannot know the exact number of individuals that these authorisations relate to.
As part of the investigation into the use of RIPA by police, a request for details of ‘covert human intelligence’ (informers) and ‘intrusive surveillance’ (covert surveillance carried out in residential premises or private vehicles) was also submitted. However the request was rejected by forces as they believe releasing the information would negatively impact on police capability
Despite the law being changed in 2012 to stop local authorities using the same powers without a magistrate’s approval, police forces do not require any such permission. The report proposes three measures that should be introduced, including:
  • requirement for police forces to publish data on how often and why these powers are used,
  • judicial approval of all surveillance operations
  • the right for subjects of surveillance to be informed.

The police should not be able to keep the details secret of how and why members of the public are spied on. To do so whilst not having to seek a courts approval to use the powers is simply unacceptable. Local authorities now have to justify how they will snoop on members of the public and it is about time that this authorisation procedure became the norm, not the exception.

Any member of the public that has been put under surveillance should be told that that has been the case when there is no risk to an on-going investigation. This is standard practice in a number of other countries with it being recognised as being an important oversight mechanism. It is clear that this added level of accountability will ensure that the public will only face being spied on when it is truly necessary.