The latest reports from government surveillance watchdogs reveals that interception of communications by UK officials surged by almost 50 per cent in 2007. British public bodies including police and intelligence agencies made 519,260 requests for information to telcos and ISPs during the year.
However, just 1,707 of these were from councils - a fraction of a single percentage point. The Interception of Communications Commissioner, Sir Paul Kennedy, said in his report that "local authorities could make much more use of communications data as a powerful tool to investigate crime". Whoever's behind the surge in intercept requests, it plainly isn't local bureaucracy.
Under available powers, councils can ask to see itemised phone bills and internet usage records, but aren't allowed to eavesdrop on conversations. Such records can nonetheless be a powerful tool for local government officials acting against rogue traders, fly tippers, those seeking to avoid council tax, parents trying to fraudulently gain places at popular schools and other criminals.
Sir Paul plainly believes that communications data should be more widely used in government, and that in general intercept powers are not being abused or causing problems. His counterpart Sir Christopher Rose, who deals with full-blown surveillance (bugging, watching, following people, making covert entries to premises etc.) is much less sanguine.
In his report, Sir Christopher says that council officers using such methods (they are limited to the less activist options, unlike the police and especially unlike the security service) have gone too far on occasion. He said that if town halls wanted to have people watched or followed, they should spend money and hire properly trained operatives able to work covertly without causing needless distress and alarm.
Some councils using these surveillance methods against council tax dodgers and so forth had shown "serious misunderstanding of the concept of proportionality", and that oversight had been "poor" in some cases.
The Beeb quotes Home Sec Jacqui Smith as saying that: "The commissioners' reports offer valuable oversight and provide reassurance that these powers are being used appropriately.
"These powers can make a real difference ... enabling us to gain that vital intelligence that will prevent a terrorist attack, working to tackle antisocial behaviour or ensuring that rogue traders do not defraud the public." ®