Days after the European Commission threatened to take the UK to court over short-comings in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa), the government has promised to take action to make it harder for local authorities to use powers under the act for trivial matters.
The Commission believes that Ripa allowed the unwarranted interception of online private messages, including web searches, breaching EU rules on data privacy.
But policing minister David Hanson MP announced plans to appoint a director-level "senior executive" to approve how and when the powers are used.
Ripa provides for the surveillance and interception of user logs and e-mails of suspected criminals by the security and intelligence services. More than 350,000 individuals are allowed to use the powers. Many did, sometimes to catch people who allowed their dogs to foul public pathways or to check if they lived in the right catchment area for schools.
Under the new measures, elected councillors in each local authority will be required to oversee the use of Ripa. Training for them and bespoke written guidance on how local authorities should use Ripa will be issued, Hanson said.
The Home Office received 222 responses to a Ripa consultation that ended in July. It will now bring forward legislation to implement the changes.
New codes of practice make clear to all public authorities which can make authorisations under Ripa that they cannot be used for minor matters, a Home Office statement said.
The orders and the related codes of practice will include measures to:
• clarify the test of necessity and proportionality so that powers will not be used to investigate dog fouling or people putting bins out a day early;
• raise the rank of the authorising officer to at least director level;
• give elected councillors a role in overseeing how local authorities use covert investigatory techniques;
• require voters' communications with MPs on constituency business to be treated as confidential information, and therefore subject to authorisation by a higher rank of officer;
• treat covert surveillance of legal consultations as "intrusive" rather than "directed" surveillance, meaning it can be carried out only by very few public authorities.
The Home Office said Ripa powers benefited the public by helping to catch rogue traders and fly tippers who dump rubbish on an industrial scale.
Hanson said in a statement, "A wide range of public authorities need to be able to authorise surveillance under Ripa to protect us from those who would do us harm. But it is equally clear that [they] must respect our right to privacy and only use [Ripa powers] when necessary and proportionate."