GCHQ? US National Security Agency? The media has been full of stories about how the British and American Government are spying on their own citizens. But few people are aware that local councils, including Salford, have vast powers to spy on communities.
Salford Council's draft guidance to its own staff on the use of such powers read like something out of James Bond, full of talk about `Covert Human Intelligence Sources', `Acquisition of Communications Data' and `Collateral Intrusion'…
The Council has powers under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, or RIPA, which can cast aside anyone's human rights "in certain circumstances" to further the "preventing or detecting crime or of preventing disorder". Nowhere does it give a definition of what "preventing disorder" actually means – it could include anti cuts campaigners who have been occupying housing offices and the Salford Council chamber, for all we know.
The document describes surveillance as including "Monitoring, observing, listening to persons, watching or following their movements, listening to their conversations and other such activities or communications" and "Recording anything mentioned above in the course of authorised surveillance".
It breaks down its surveillance methods into `overt' and `covert'…and helpfully defines `covert surveillance' as being "carried out in a manner calculated to ensure that the person subject to the surveillance is unaware of it taking place".
This includes directing CCTV cameras "to observe particular individual(s)", "a hidden camera or other recording device" and "the use of a 'covert human intelligence source' ('CHIS')".
The document defines a CHIS as "Someone who establishes or maintains a personal or other relationship for the covert purpose of helping the covert use of the relationship to obtain information" – and further defines them as "undercover agents".
Salford Council can also use, what it calls the `Acquisition of Communications Data' as part of "preventing or detecting crime or for preventing disorder".
The document defines `Communication Data as "any traffic or any information that is or has been sent over a telecommunications system or postal system, together with information about the use of the system made by any person".
Using RIPA powers S22, Salford Council can "compel a Communications Service Provider to obtain and disclose, or just disclose Communications Data in their possession"…
The document adds: "Notices/authorities issued under S22 compelling disclosure of Communications Data are only valid for one month, but can be renewed for subsequent periods of one month, at any time".
En route to obtaining information on its citizens, Salford Council accepts that there will be "Collateral Intrusion", or "intrusion into the privacy of persons other than those who are directly the subjects of the investigation or operation". It advises that the "invasion of third parties' privacy should, so far as is possible, be minimised".
Within the RIPA rules, Salford Council cannot interfere directly with private property, nor can it plant "a listening or other electronic device (bug) or camera in a person's home or in/on their private vehicle/person".
The guidance also warns against using tracking tracking devices on vehicles: however, it can use a tracking device on a skip "provided that the tracking device is disguised as refuse and is not physically attached/affixed to the skip".
RIPA powers can be carried out by staff either directly employed by Salford Council, or "external agencies working for the City Council". Previously Salford Council didn't need anyone but a `senior officer' to give the go ahead for these surveillance methods – but the incoming government, recognising that it could be a `snoopers charter', changed the law so that a magistrate now has to sign a RIPA order.
The draft Salford Council RIPA document with advice to staff on surveillance methods was issued in 2009. Three years later, in August 2012, Big Brother Watch produced a report which showed that Salford Council had made 143 uses of RIPA between 2008 and 2011, the eleventh highest use of such powers by a local authority in the country.
RIPA powers were used only once for benefit fraud, twice for `environmental protection', three times in relation to licensing, ten times in relation to trading standards and a whopping 127 times for anti-social behaviour. Salford Council refused to disclose the outcomes of the surveillance, under Section 12 of the Freedom of Information Act.
Anti-social behaviour comes under "preventing disorder", which could potentially be used to spy on those campaigning against Salford Council cuts or any other form of social protest.
Regarding Salford Council's more recent use of RIPA powers, the Salford Star is about to put in a Freedom of Information request – although its officers probably already know this…