POWERS to seize telephone records and spy on suspect citizens have been used at least 75 times by Edinburgh Council in the last three years, new figures reveal.
City bosses can deploy “snooper squads” with recording devices to spy on unsuspecting benefit cheats or trawl through data held by “communication services” if the covert actions are deemed necessary to prevent crime or protect public health.
The council can also ask website hosts such as Facebook or Gumtree to release information in order to investigate sales of counterfeit or unsafe goods, but cannot obtain text messages or the contents of emails.
The powers are typically used to investigate complaints about antisocial behaviour, breaches of trading standards or environmental health legislation.
However, Greens’ convener Councillor Steve Burgess said that while council intelligence- gathering is strictly controlled, the extent and scope of it may startle some, as intelligence can also be gathered from people who have been asked to spy on their neighbours .
“It’s probably a surprise to most residents that the council has these sorts of surveillance powers, including asking communications companies for records of calls and emails,” he said. “The council is now refreshing its protocols because of recent changes to legislation, including now having to go to court to seek permission to obtain call records.
“It’s right that these powers are strictly controlled. Residents need to be reassured that surveillance is only carried out as a last resort in specific criminal cases.”
Local authority snooping powers have been updated following ratification of the Protection of Freedoms Act in 2012.
Edinburgh has been inspected five times by the Office of Surveillance Commissioners since the act came into force and been described as a “well-performing council” with a management structure “of the highest standard”.
Community safety leader Cllr Cammy Day said the measures are used purely to keep citizens safe. He added: “We are committed to conserving our citizens’ right to privacy and any use of CCTV or other surveillance is carried out under strict guidelines and very specific circumstances. The results of our latest inspection were overwhelmingly positive, which demonstrates the care we take.”
Civil liberty campaigners have expressed fears about the extent of snooping by local authorities. In 2008, councils across Britain launched 10,000 clandestine missions – many to investigate petty offences such as dog fouling and under-age smoking.
Campaign group Liberty said having to ask a Sheriff for the powers to be deployed will help stop them being abused. As well as presenting its case to a Sheriff for data retrieval, city chief executive Sue Bruce has to agree for them to be used in “the most exceptional circumstances”.
The powers are due to be discussed at City Chambers tomorrow.
SOMEBODY’S WATCHING ME
COUNCILS have powers to gather covert intelligence to prevent or detect crime and protect public health.
They cannot perform ‘Intrusive Intelligence’ targeting domestic premises or private vehicles, a power reserved for the police.
Changes to the law now mean Scottish public authorities must apply to a Sheriff before retrieving data from communications service providers.