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Nick Pickles is Director of civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch. Follow Nick on Twitter

Screen shot 2012-08-21 at 19.15.40When the Coalition took office, limiting the ability of local authorities to use surveillance powers was rightly identified as a key issue. The Protection of Freedoms Act means councils will require a magistrate’s warrant before they can use snooping powers, but is this the only action that is required?

The legacy of wide-ranging legislation is often most vividly defined by the unintended consequences produced. Few laws have had such broad repercussions as the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, or 'the Grim RIPA’ as it’s become known.


Intended to consolidate surveillance legislation and bring fresh accountability, RIPA has instead handed wide-ranging powers to hundreds of public authorities who are still able to exercise them without the judicial approval now required of local authorities. RIPA has no transparency provisions so its use and abuse has relied on Freedom of Information law to be exposed.

Today Big Brother Watch has launched a new report, ‘A legacy of suspicion’, looking at the wider question of whether RIPA can really be considered fit for purpose. We detail how local authorities continued to pursue dodgy escort agencies, investigating fairground rides and puppy sales as Parliament was in the process of stripping them of these powers. Furthermore, we expose the public authorities using RIPA, and those who are refusing to say why they are doing so.

Since RIPA was introduced more than three million authorisations have been granted, yet only ten people – five of whom belonged to one family in Poole – have ever had a complaint upheld by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal. Sound too good to be true? We think so.

Why? Well how are you supposed to complain about unwarranted surveillance if you never know you’ve been under surveillance? Even the most incompetent councils have by and large managed to keep their spying secret, with one or two notable exceptions.

The issue is of course that councils and public authorities don’t have to say what they are up to, why, how often and even whether they have convicted anyone as a result. It takes groups like Big Brother Watch to dig up the figures – the first step is for the Government to take action and make this data publicly reported.

Secondly, the Coalition has started down the right path in limiting how councils can use these powers. Now it’s time for a full and frank review of how RIPA functions – before the landscape is complicated even further with any more surveillance legislation that fiddles with the law in an effort to patch up existing failings.

Finally, judicial authorisation of surveillance should be the norm, not the exception.
These policies would help further restore and protect British liberties while ensuring that we do not exacerbate an already unsure situation with equally vague legislation. Given the Home Office has already promised a two year review of how powers of entry are used, now is a unique opportunity to have a serious debate about how we shape the future of privacy and security in Britain.

RIPA was the hallmark of New Labour’s security politicking. The Coalition now has the chance to challenge that legacy of suspicion, and it is one I hope they take.

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