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Monday, 17 June, 2002, 11:57 GMT 12:57 UK
Official site to advise on state snooping
Office of Surveillance Commissioners homepage, OSC
The UK Government has set up a website to advise other organisations on the best way to snoop on citizens.

Later this month a raft of government departments and organisations will be added to the list of people that can compile records of what British people get up to with their mobile and fixed phones, fax machines, web browser and e-mail accounts.

The website has been set up to help the new organisations stay within the law while they carry out covert surveillance.

But critics say the department charged with overseeing the use of surveillance will be unable to cope with the deluge of snooping likely to be unleashed by the new laws.

'Understaffed'

The Office of Surveillance Commissioners was set up in 1999 by the Home Office to watch over the activities of organisations that can carry out covert surveillance.

The OSC gained a new role when the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act became law in 2000.

The Act made it much easier for Customs and Excise, police forces and intelligence services to get permission to spy on criminals and citizens.

Before the RIP Act was passed, anyone wanting to carry out surveillance had to justify their need to spy in front of a judge.

The RIP Act removed this requirement and instead put approval and oversight into the hands of the Office of Surveillance Commissioners.

'Completely unfeasible'

The website unveiled at the end of last week will act as a central information point for any organisations that have to carry out surveillance and give advice on best practice.

One of the three surveillance commissioners appointed to the OSC has the job of ensuring that covert surveillance of what people do with e-mail, the web, phones and faxes is carried out in line with the RIP Act.

Ian Brown, director of the Foundation for Information Policy Research, expressed doubts that the understaffed and underfunded OSC will be able to police the use of surveillance, given that many more organisations are about to get snooping powers.

"The number of staff that is has is such that it is completely unfeasible that it would be able to provide any oversight of how these powers are used," he said.

Mr Brown said that police forces have already declared that they will not maintain a central register of how much surveillance they are carrying out.

As a result, he said, staff working for the OSC will have to travel the country checking the records of police forces and every other organisation that is carrying out surveillance.

See also:

11 Jun 02 | Science/Nature
12 Jun 02 | UK Politics
26 Jul 00 | Science/Nature
15 Feb 02 | Science/Nature
30 May 02 | Science/Nature
18 Jan 02 | Science/Nature
17 Jun 02 | UK Politics
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