Not content with some 7million CCTV cameras set about the whole of the UK, Scottish local authorities are now using spying powers to bug, film, and secretly enter peoples properties throughout Scotland in efforts to keep tabs on everyone from benefits claimants to critics, or whistle-blowing members of staff themselves.
The powers, originally granted to Councils to fight terrorism are now being used instead on everything from dog fouling to housing benefit claims.
It has also been revealed that some Councils have used bugging powers to find out what stories journalists are investigating concerning alleged 'failings' of Scots local authorities, and even it is claimed, spied on solicitors who were handling cases for clients with grievances against certain local authorities.
One solicitor who refused to be named said "some of the officials I have been dealing with have their own skeletons the public should be made aware of.” He added “Perhaps someone should spy on them too"
So, if your pet Jack Russell poops on the wrong pavement, expect the whirring, if suspicious, sound of a secret auto-focus lens in your living room from time to time …
The Sunday Herald reports :
In 2002 Scottish councils were given the power to secretly film and bug citizens in the fight against terrorism. Now a watchdog claims local authorities are abusing the powers to target thousands of ordinary people.
By Investigations Editor Neil Mackay
SCOTTISH COUNCILS ARE USING SURVEILLANCE AND security powers intended to fight terrorism and organised crime in order to spy on ordinary members of the public suspected of petty offences such as breaching the smoking ban, playing music too loudly and dropping litter.
Local authority chiefs have ordered staff to spy on unwitting members of the public some 3579 times since being granted the powers in 2002. Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa), councils have the power to secretly film and bug people, use paid spies to inform on a suspect's activities, and even intercept communications data such as mobile and landline use and information about email traffic.
The law was supposed to be introduced to deal with new threats to security in the 21st century such as global terrorism, international organised crime, internet crime and paedophilia. Information on the "misuse" of the Ripa powers by Scottish councils was gathered by the civil liberties pressure group and watchdog organisation, Scotland Against Criminalising Communities (SACC).
SACC researcher Alan Hinnrichs submitted freedom of information requests to all 32 councils. Twenty-six replied, revealing not only the frequent and haphazard use of the powers, but also the bad training and lack of safeguards and oversight that local authorities employ to protect the privacy and human rights of citizens.
SACC claims councils are abusing the civil liberties of the Scottish public and says civil servants and bureaucrats should not have such wide-ranging powers. The watchdog believes that spying on ordinary citizens should only be a power granted to the police or the security and intelligence services in cases of extreme danger such as threats to national security or to prevent major crime.
Of the councils which replied to the FoI requests, Edinburgh was found to be using the Ripa laws the most excessively, authorising spying actions 1252 times.
The council claimed "most commonly, directed surveillance is used by community safety staff to investigate complaints of anti-social behaviour. A small number of authorisations will be made by Environmental Health and Trading Standards staff investigating breaches of legislation relevant to their area of work. Finally, staff dealing with fraudulent benefit claims will have made a small number of applications".
Edinburgh also said it used "covert human intelligence sources" (CHIS) four times. A CHIS could be a friend paid to pass information to the council, or someone paid by the council to gather information on a target and relay details of their life back to local authority bureaucrats. Edinburgh Council defended Ripa as "an important tool" and said it only used the powers "as a last resort".
East Ayrshire used Ripa powers 94 times, mostly to monitor noise levels for Asbo applications. Powers were also invoked to monitor the sale of fireworks to minors.
In Falkirk, which used Ripa 380 times, citizens could be spied on for noise nuisance, littering, if they were suspected of driving a taxi without a licence, for breaching the smoking ban and if their expense claims were thought to be exaggerated.
Details from Moray showed just how badly informed and trained council staff were about the Ripa legislation. A restricted inspection report from the Office of Surveillance Commissioners dated September 2004 says the council's policy on using covert human intelligence sources was "clearly confused" and "displays a lack of understanding". "Every record" relating to covert human intelligence "was significantly defective".
Staff had not carried out risk assessments over the use of covert human intelligence, the report said, and "the need for them was not understood".
It added: "The chief executive, who is listed as an authorising officer for all directed surveillance and not just cases relating to confidential information, has still received no training." No central record of authorisations existed and the "provision of training has been very patchy". Some staff were "essentially self-taught" and others had received no training. Applications for spying powers were "never signed".
Perth and Kinross council admitted it used the powers six times to access "communications data". Covert human intelligence sources were employed twice and directed surveillance used 15 times. The Western Isles only employed the Ripa powers three times, twice for what is described as "anti-smoking" purposes and once because of the alleged misconduct of an employee.
Glasgow City Council said that on 44 occasions it used powers under the act regarding "the acquisition of telecommunications traffic data". These were in relation to suspected offences under the Consumer Credit Act, such as illegal money lending. Glasgow defended its use of Ripa saying it mostly used the powers to deal with serious criminal offences.
Richard Haley, secretary of SACC, said he was "astonished and baffled" by the misuse of Ripa, adding: "We need to be clear that this is not about a few more CCTV cameras. This is directed surveillance, likely to obtain private information on ordinary people. We are talking about the use of cameras and microphones and agents.
"If these cases are serious, then they warrant proper policing, not amateur detective work by council officials acting as if they were part of a private detective agency. Profound civil liberties issues are raised here.''