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BBC Under Fire For Secret Use Of RIPA Surveillance Powers

Broadcaster just one of many publicly-funded firms keeping schtum about use of RIPA

On by Thomas Brewster 1

The BBC and other publicly funded bodies have been criticised by communities secretary Eric Pickles for secrecy over their use of RIPA surveillance powers.

A report from the Big Brother Watch pressure group, endorsed by Pickles, calls on the government to modify the survillance powers granted by the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), to make authorities more accountable in their use of surveillance laws.

The BBW report found seven bodies, including the BBC, Ofsted, the Royal Mail and the Office for Fair Trading, refused to disclose how often, for what purpose and what type of surveillance they have undertaken using RIPA-granted powers.

Grim RIPA

RIPA allows public organisations to get hold of information from ISPs about suspects, such as account information and communications data, including who the suspect has been contacting and when. But they have to get permission from either the home secretary or the secretary of state for justice before using higher level surveillance, which includes bugging people’s homes or intercepting communications.

Lower level surveillance, such as access to comms data, can be authorised by various levels of officials in local authorities.

Local councils can only use RIPA powers if signed off by a magistrate that has determined they are necessary for stopping serious crime. As noted by BBW, there are no transparency provisions in RIPA, hence certain organisations have been able to avoid disclosing how they use the Act.

“For public bodies, funded by and working for the taxpayer, to be using RIPA yet so vociferously trying to avoid accountability is simply unacceptable,” Pickles said in his foreword to the BBW report.

Public bodies who were not forthcoming about how they used RIPA powers argued the information would prejudice certain law enforcement activities.

The BBC said it had not been secretive about how it was using RIPA powers. “The BBC uses Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act for the detection of television licence evasion alone,” a spokesperson said. “It is only used as a last resort once other enforcement methods have been exhausted.The reason we do not release more details on how and when it is used is to ensure people without a valid TV licence don’t use this information to their advantage when attempting to avoid detection.”

BBW also raised concerns about how local authorities were using the powers. Councils carried out three surveillance operations every day between 2009-11, amounting to 9600 uses of RIPA, before the Coalition government changed the law requiring them to have a magistrate’s approval.

Kent was said to be the worst local authority in the country for RIPA investigations, using the powers 315 times in three years. Kent County Council used RIPA powers 37 times for suspected intellectual property crimes and 130 times for suspected sales of age restricted goods to minors.

There were some other odd uses of RIPA, which is supposed to be helping catch serious offenders. Stockton Borough Council used the powers in an investigation into the “moving of pigs”. Northumberland County Council got hold of communications data when it was looking into issues with tarmac surfacing.

BBW wants to see RIPA reviewed. “The need for a comprehensive overhaul of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and surveillance framework is, in our view, the only viable long-term solution,” the report read.

“It is a foundation that is not fit for purpose and attempting to address the clear deficiencies in RIPA with piecemeal amendments in other pieces of legislation will only exacerbate an already complicated and dysfunctional legal framework.”

In particular, it wants to see any public authority using RIPA forced to publish standard information about how, when and to what outcome they use the powers, and it wants judicial authorisation of surveillance to be extended to cover all public authorities.

BBW also wants the review to be undertaken before the government presses ahead with an amendment to RIPA – the proposed Communications Data Bill, otherwise known as ‘Snooper’s Charter’, which would extend the powers of police and GCHQ to intercept communications data.

The public consultation on the bill is due to close tomorrow, as the Joint Committee on the draft Communications Data Bill, chaired by Lord Blencathra, looks into the proposals. It is expected to release its report by November.

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Thomas Brewster

Author: Thomas Brewster

Security Correspondent, TechWeekEurope
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One reply to BBC Under Fire For Secret Use Of RIPA Surveillance Powers

  • On February 14, 2013 at 11:55 am by arbiter

    More misinterpretation of RIPA – the act does not provide powers. There is no general prohibition of the use of surveillance and RIPA is a set of restrictions that apply to public bodies to ensure they comply with S8 Human Rights Act.

    Disinformation from BBW has resulted overreactions that have completely hamstrung investigators hence the widespread increase in fraud including the horsemeat scandal

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