London, Sept.7 : Seventy-five percent of the local councils across Britain have reportedly used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) 2000, an anti-terrorism law, over the past year to spy on residents and tackle barking dogs and noisy children.
A Sunday Telegraph report said that the act gives councils the right to place residents and businesses under surveillance, trace telephone and email accounts and even send staff on undercover missions.
It says that the RIPA was introduced to help fight terrorism and crime, but amendments have been incorporated into it to allow most of Britain's 474 councils to tackle minor misdemeanors.
Among 115 councils that responded to a Freedom of Information request, 89 admitted that they had instigated investigations under the Act. The 82 councils that provided figures said that they authorized or carried out a total of 867 RIPA investigations during the year to August
Durham county council emerged as the biggest user, with just over 100 surveillance operations launched during the period. Newcastle city council used the powers 82 times, and Middlesbrough council 70 times.
The Northampton council said it had used the legislation on five previous occasions to tackle dog fouling.
The paper quoted Sir Jeremy Beecham, the acting chairman of the Local Government Association, which represents councils, as saying on Saturday night: "Councils are tuned into people's fears about the potential overzealous use of these crime- fighting powers. They know that they're only to be used to tackle residents' complaints about serious offences, like when benefit cheats are robbing hard-working taxpayers or fly-by-night traders are ripping off vulnerable pensioners."
He added: "Councils do not use these powers to mount fishing expeditions. First and foremost it is about protecting the public, not intruding on privacy. Crime-busting powers are targeted at suspected criminals and used only when absolutely necessary."
The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act allows for the interception of communications, acquisition and disclosure of data relating to communications, carrying-out of surveillance, use of covert intelligence sources and access to encrypted or password-protected data.
It can be evoked by public servants on the grounds of national security, and for the purposes of preventing or detecting crime, preventing disorder, public safety, protecting public health, or in the interests of the UK's economic well being. Councils were first granted use of the legislation in 2003.