Warning Over Privacy Laws

The privacy watchdog's warned that no one is checking whether new laws that invade privacy are justified or even being used as intended.

Information Commissioner Christopher Graham said he was concerned that councils were using covert CCTV surveillance to monitor parents in school catchment area disputes under powers designed to assist in crime prevention and detection.

The use of such laws should be scrutinised to determine whether they are being used properly, he said.

"Many of the new laws that come into force every year in the UK have implications for privacy at their heart,'' Mr Graham said.

"My concern is that after they are enacted there is no one looking back to see whether they are being used as intended, or whether the new powers were indeed justified in practice.

"One example of this is the use of covert CCTV surveillance by local councils to monitor parents in school catchment area disputes under powers designed to assist in crime prevention and detection.''

In his report to the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, he said Government departments should have a legal requirement to scrutinise how the laws are being used in practice.

Sunset clauses, which allow all or part of a law to be terminated after a specific date, should also be considered, he said.

And private firms launching new technologies should consider privacy implications at the design stage or before they are released rather than as an afterthought.

Research by the Surveillance Studies Network, a group of academic experts, described "the proliferation of government databases, the increased use of CCTV and allied technology like automatic number plate recognition (ANPR)'' and how these systems "can creep beyond their original function''.

"Whether the trajectory of regulation and the critical awareness and vigilance of public opinion has matched the continued development of surveillance since 2006 is not certain,'' they said.

In August, Poole Borough Council admitted it spied on a family using laws passed to track criminals and terrorists to find out if they were lying about living in a school catchment area.

The couple and their three children were put under surveillance without their knowledge by the council in Dorset for more than two weeks using powers under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA).

The family only found out about the spying when a school admissions manager told them.

The authority said it used the legislation to watch the family at home and in their daily movements because it wanted to know if they lived in the catchment area for a school which their three-year-old daughter wanted to attend.

The family, who lived in the Parkstone area of Poole, told the Bournemouth Echo the surveillance team wrote down detailed notes such as "female and three children enter target vehicle and drive off'' and "curtains open and all lights on in premises''.

The RIPA legislation allows councils to carry out surveillance but only if it suspects criminal acts have taken place.

And last month, West Midlands Police Chief Constable Chris Sims said controversial surveillance cameras set up in two predominantly Muslim neighbourhoods in Birmingham should be removed.

The ANPR and CCTV cameras were financed under a counter-terrorism initiative but were initially marketed to locals as a general crime-prevention measure.

An independent report criticised the Project Champion scheme, which saw 218 cameras installed as part of a counter-terrorism programme.

The cameras, some of which were hidden, sparked anger from civil liberties campaigners and residents in Sparkbrook and Washwood Heath in Birmingham, where they were predominantly erected.

Mr Sims said all of the cameras should be pulled down in a bid to regain the trust of residents.