Councils say Ripa is used to protect the public
A survey of UK councils has found some are spying on litter louts and people who let dogs foul public places, using laws to track criminals and terrorists.
Some local authorities have used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) more than 100 times in the last 12 months to conduct surveillance.
The findings, obtained by the Press Association news agency, come from 46 of the 468 local authorities in the UK.
Privacy campaigners called for a "root and branch review" of the law.
Earlier this month it emerged that Poole Borough Council in Dorset used Ripa to spy on a family for three weeks to find out if they were really living in a school catchment area.
The council said the case was treated as potential criminal activity, which justified the use of the act.
Less serious offences
Home Office guidance says Ripa allows "the interception of communications, carrying out of surveillance and the use of covert human intelligence sources" to help prevent crime, including terrorism.
The Press Association contacted 97 councils to find out how they were using the powers.
The 46 who responded said they had used the act a total of 1,343 times, mainly against rogue trading, benefit fraud and anti-social behaviour like criminal damage.
But some said the law was also used to find out about other less serious offences, such as:
- Derby City Council, Bolton, Gateshead and Hartlepool used surveillance to investigate dog fouling.
- Bolton Council also used the act to investigate littering.
- The London borough of Kensington and Chelsea conducted surveillance on the misuse of a disabled parking badge.
- Liverpool City Council used Ripa to identify a false claim for damages.
- Conwy Council used the law to spy on a person who was working while off sick.
The survey found the biggest user of Ripa was Durham County Council, which used it 144 times in the last 12 months.
The council said it did not consider the use to be directed at members of the public, but against traders it had suspected of crime.
'Petty and vindictive'
Simon Davies, director of campaign group Privacy International, called for a review of Ripa.
"Ripa put physical surveillance on a legal basis but that doesn't make it right or morally right - it just covers the back of local authorities, but at huge expense," Mr Davies said.
"Local authorities can be very petty and vindictive and they can become obsessed with issues like dog fouling and there can be a lack of judgment.
"In the case of dog fouling it's almost morally justifiable to bring these people to book, but you have to ask the question is the response an overkill?
"There are better ways to achieve the objectives without using counter-terrorism laws."
Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights group Liberty, said: "You don't use a sledgehammer to crack a nut, nor targeted surveillance to stop a litter bug.
"You can care about serious crime and terrorism without throwing away our personal privacy with a snoopers' charter.
"The law must be reformed to require sign-off by judges not self authorisation by over-zealous bureaucrats."
Sir Simon Milton, Local Government Association chairman, said councils were using the law to protect people against rip-off merchants, fly-tippers and benefit fraudsters.
"It's wrong to suggest that these are specifically anti-terror powers," he said.
"There are strict rules to protect people from unnecessary intrusion, and whenever a council applies to use these powers they must prove that it is both necessary and proportionate to the crime being investigated."
Out of the 97 councils contacted, 16 said they did not use the act at all, 19 asked for the request to be submitted under the Freedom of Information Act and 16 did not respond.