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RIPA to be limited

November 4, 2009

The UK Home Office is finally publishing plans to reform the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) which defined in law the surveillance powers open to hundreds of government bodies. You can see what I have previously said about the consultation here. The consultation on RIPA actually had 7 major questions. The Home Office has now responded to all the opinions offered during the consultation. In more detail, this is what was said:

1.    Taking into account the reasons for requiring the use of covert investigatory techniques under RIPA set out for each public authority, should any of them nevertheless be removed from the RIPA framework?

Response: basically, none should be removed. Although the Home Office noted that many respondents had objections, they didn’t feel they added up. Indeed this section also seems to include extensions of the powers (or clarifications that act effectively as extensions) for example the ability of the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission (the replacement for the Child Support Agency), to have access to telecommunications data to investigate fathers required to pay child support. These extensions may be warranted or not, but they show the tendency for what Gary Marx long ago called ‘surveillance creep’ to occur – the saving of telecommunications data has increased since RIPA was proposed and now RIPA will be used to allow new agencies access to this data.

They also note that they will not be returning any of these investigatory functions to the police. This is interesting because later they use the reason of non-interference in law-enforcement for denying elected councillors detailed oversight. So this confirms a trend to less and less accountable law enforcement.

2. If any public authorities should be removed from the RIPA framework, what, if any, alternative tools should they be given to enable them to do their jobs?

Response: given the previous response, it is not surprising that no real change is proposed here. The Home Office in fact insists that more emphasis should be placed on overt surveillance by local authorities (like CCTV) in order to reduce the need to resort to RIPA’s covert surveillance!

3.    What more should we do to reduce bureaucracy for the police so they can use RIPA more easily to protect the public against criminals?

This wasn’t a question that I ever noticed critics of RIPA asking. Some agencies seem to have objected to the amount of paperwork around RIPA and The Home Office “agrees that it is in no-one’s interests for documentation to be unnecessarily time-consuming” and they, for once, insist on a proper auditable trail that can help protect privacy. They say in any case, applications are already down massively.

There is an interesting note that suggests the increasing use of RIPA for counter-terrorism activities which is left rather open – “the Government is facilitating the work of police collaborative units, such as the regional counter-terrorist units… This means officers seeking to use techniques under RIPA will be able to apply to authorising officers in different forces, where the Chief Officers have made a collaboration agreement that permits this”, in other words that RIPA might be used for massive, blanket undercover surveillance operations. Now that certain wasn’t what the government has recently claimed it was intended for – although of course, as anyone with any kind of memory will recall, it was exactly the justification used for passing it.

4.    Should the rank at which local authorities authorise the use of covert investigatory techniques be raised to senior executive?

Response: The media reports thus far have focused on the plan to limit the authorisation of such practices to council chief executives and directors – a recommendation made by the House of Lords Constitution Committee – what the Home Office actually recommends is to restrict the decision to a rather wider set: ‘Director, Head of Service, Service Manager or equivalent’. So, no junior officers any more, which is good, but not necessarily senior managers only. They also recommend having a compliance officer designated, which is good if they genuinely work on active and ethical compliance rather than thinking of excuses in retrospect.

5. Should elected councillors be given a role in overseeing the way local authorities use covert investigatory techniques?

Response: yes they should, but it should be ‘strategic’ and limited to once a year setting of policy and strategy with quarterly oversight meetings. They argue, as I mentioned earlier, that non-interference in law-enforcement is a good reason for keeping elected officials away from the details… Councillors in the UK have been increasingly hamstrung in the way that they can oversee their supposed bureaucracy, even to the point where they have been fined and suspended for criticising their own officers. Some real control would be welcome (after all, that is what the purpose of local democracy should be).

6. Are the Government’s other proposed changes in the Consolidating Orders appropriate?

Response: the Home Office basically rejected all the respondents’ comments on the proposals.

7.    Do the revised Codes of Practice provide sufficient clarity on when it is necessary and proportionate to use techniques regulated in RIPA?

Response: the codes of practice will be made clearer. No more guidance will be given. The Guardian says that the proposals will ‘ban’ the use of RIPA for ‘minor matters’ but I can’t really see that they do this, and the points of such codes is usually to avoid recourse to the law by encouraging a voluntary self-regulation; it is how CCTV is largely – and incredibly ineffectively – regulated in the UK too.

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