Poole Borough Council has admitted using the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), designed to regulate snooping by police and other bodies, to check the usual address of a three-year-old child applying for a primary school place.
The council is unrepentant and said it will continue to use powers available to it under the Act.
Poole Council confirmed to the Register that it used physical surveillance six times in the financial year 2007/2008. Three of these related to school applications and three to investigations by Environmental and Consumer Protection. The council also acquired communications data three times in the period.
Tim Martin, head of legal and democratic services, Borough of Poole, said: "On a small number of occasions, RIPA procedures have been used to investigate potentially fraudulent applications for school places. In such circumstances, we have considered it appropriate to treat the matter as a potential criminal matter.
"The council is keen to ensure that the information given by parents who apply for school places is true. This protects the majority of honest parents against the small number of questionable applications. An investigation may actually satisfy the council that the application is valid, as happened in this case."
From 13 February until 3 March the family's house was put under surveillance.
Surveillance logs show the family were watched at home and their car was followed.
James Welch, legal director for privacy watchdog Liberty, said: "It's one thing to use covert surveillance in operations investigating terrorism and other serious crimes, but it has come to a pretty pass when this kind of intrusive activity is used to police school catchment areas.
"This is a ridiculously disproportionate use of RIPA and will undermine public trust in necessary and lawful surveillance."
In 2003, the Home Office announced measures to restrict use of RIPA by local authorities. This supposedly stopped parish councils, the lowest level of local government, from accessing communication data.
The bill was passed in 2000 and mainly gained attention because it regulated how security services and police could access emails and other communication and browsing information.
In February 2008, Sir Ronnie Flanagan, chief inspector of constabulary, called for an urgent review of RIPA codes of practice and complained of "over-interpretation of the relevant rules". ®