Privacy & Security

UK: Anti-Terrorism Law Used to Investigate Dog Poop

As wacky as some of the anti-terrorist initiatives that I've written about in the good ol' USA, they don't hold a candle to those advanced in the United Kingdom.

Case in point: the UK's Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA).  When the U.K. Parliament enacted this law in 2000, proponents claimed it was urgently required to deal with "new technologies" allegedly used by terrorists, pedophiles, and the like.

Among other provisions, this law:

  • Allows the U.K. government to issue a secret demand for your e-mail and browsing records from your Internet Service Providers
  • Facilitates mass surveillance of cellular phone calls
  • Forces telecom companies to install equipment to facilitate mass surveillance
  • Requires targeted individuals to hand over their encryption keys and passphrases

However, one of the lesser-known effects of RIPA to enable local "Councils"—the U.K. equivalent of city governments in the United States—to conduct their own investigations using these same provisions.  The only limitation is that councils may not wiretap phones—this power is reserved for police and intelligence services.  Indeed, according to figures recently released by the U.K. Office of the Surveillance Commissioner, local councils initiate approximately 1,000 covert surveillance investigations each month.

Naturally, this authority is being used only to investigate extremely serious crimes.  Some of the "terrorist-related" offenses currently under investigation include:

  • Pet owners failing to pick up dog droppings allegedly left by their dogs
  • The use of tobacco products by persons under the age of 18
  • Failing to properly segregate their trash for recycling
  • Lying on an application form for admission to an elite school
  • Illegal dumping

This result should surprise no one.  "Surveillance creep" is a phenomenon I've long observed in laws originally enacted to fight serious crime.  Since such laws generally reduce the burden to obtain evidence, obtain a criminal conviction, or seize property, authorities naturally use the new law instead of older, more burdensome legislation.

Nor is surveillance creep limited to the United Kingdom.  The USA Patriot Act, supposedly enacted to fight terrorism, is now routinely used in other types of criminal investigation.  U.S. civil forfeiture laws, expanded in the 1970s to crack down on drug kingpins, are now used to routinely to confiscate cash from unwitting motorists and others.  No criminal conviction is necessary.

The only way to stop surveillance creep is to stop enacting laws that give governments carte blanche to take shortcuts in order to solve increasingly petty crimes.  And in the meantime, if you live in the United Kingdom (or anywhere else), beware of sending unencrypted e-mail.  A local council investigator may just be reading it, looking for evidence that you failed to clean up after your dog.


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Nestmann

(An earlier version of this post was published by The Sovereign Society.)

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