Tidings of comfort and joy

A city council press release slips out under the cover of the Christmas break. Already flagged by Lib Dem Cabinet Member, Mark Wright, on this blog, we’re being told “Council takes action to safeguard privacy”.

Potentially good news then as it’s all about how the city council will be using RIPA (The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000) laws – that allows them to collect data on and engage in the covert surveillance of citizens – in the future.

Wright himself tells us, “In future, the council’s privacy-related activities will be scrutinised in public by the Council’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee which will act as a proper check on the use of such methods.”

While we’re also informed of some other measures that will be introduced:

  • Elected councillors to be given a strategic role in scrutinising the way the Council uses data and covert investigatory techniques
  • Review of the Council’s procedures on retention, destruction and storage of data collected by the Council, and the adoption of a code of practice
  • Reviewing the rank of authorising officer for RIPA and whether this request should be raised to a more senior level
  • The Deputy Chief Executive to be the ‘responsible officer ‘ for ensuring all authorising officers are of an appropriate standard and properly trained
  • This is all well and good but it does raise a question. What on earth have council officers been up to for the last ten years using these laws out the view of elected politicians with no independent scrutiny and zero accountability?

    Wright says Overview and Scrutiny will provide a “proper check on the use of such methods”. So is he saying that there has been no such proper checks before?

    And if councillors are now being given a strategic role in scrutinising the way the council uses data and covert investigatory techniques who was doing this before? Unelected and unaccountable officers? Nobody at all?

    What about “adopting a code of practice”? Were officers using surveillance and collecting data on us with no code of practice? Without a written set of rules and regulations guiding their actions?

    How about “reviewing the rank of authorising officer for RIPA”? Are we being told that low-level bureaucrats have been authorising invasive surveillance and collecting data on us without any accountability?

    This is nothing short of scandalous. No wonder the council have slipped this news out at Christmas.

    This entry was posted in Bristol, IT, Lib Dems, Local government, Policing, Politics, Privacy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

    15 Responses to Tidings of comfort and joy

    1. jonesthenews says:

      I think it’s also fair to say that although Mark makes his opposition to the RIPA laws very clear, he cannot promise the council will never use them. The circumstances in which the council might use them are also difficult to pin down.

    2. woodsy says:

      Does the use of CCTV come under RIPA regulations? Bristol City Council has in the past used CCTV surveillance to tackle the heinous crime of dog fouling.

    3. thebristolblogger says:

      As I understand it, if BCC wanted to set up a CCTV camera outside your home to specifically monitor you – “directed surveillance” – that would need RIPA powers.

      CCTV in general is regulated through the Data Protection Act – which gives you the right to access all the CCTV footage they hold of you. (Get a few hundred people to request that and watch them go in to meltdown).

      There should also be a notice informing you that CCTV is in operation – otherwise it’s covert monitoring.

      The council does have a CCTV Code of Practice:

      http://www.bristol.gov.uk/ccm/cms-service/download/asset/?asset_id=31675062

    4. woodsy says:

      Thanks BB

      I see the CCTV Code of Practice to which you linked was watermarked ‘draft’ and dated 2007. Perhaps one of our councillors who profess to be ‘open’ and ‘transparent’ would care to comment on the code’s current status.

    5. Dave says:

      Is this the sort of covert surveillance you’re objecting to?

      http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/bristol/8028732.stm

      Or maybe not?

    6. Seebag says:

      The incompetencies and chaos you allude to fit well with a recent survey using FOI to ask local councils for the numbers of their officials who can enter our homes without warrants or permission. Needless to say Bristol City Council declined, citing excessive costs to obtain the information. That, along with the need for these new initiatives, really does suggest that Jandroid has been running a tight ship, doesn’t it.

    7. Heh, I might have known you’d find some way of bashing us with that, but I didn’t guess you’d go for “slipping it out at Christmas”! 😉

      I kicked off this review as soon as I was installed into the Cabinet, and it took way, way longer than I would have liked to come to fruition. There has been a fair bit of gnashing of my teeth and pulling of my hair, but the fact was the final press release was only completed on 22nd Dec, so the best time to release it seemed this week.

      I can’t really say much about the regime before the summer, save that IMO it wasn’t properly democratically accountable and therefore wasn’t good enough. Bristol had not been caught abusing RIPA in the way that some council have, so you could say that – although unsupervised by politicians – officers were going about the RIPA job within the rules and with due diligence.

      The check beforehand was the “RIPA working group” of officers. We were also audited a while ago by the Office of Surveillance Commissioners – from which we got a pretty good assessment.

      Re: CCTV, BB is correct that if it is “overt” (signposted) surveillance, then it is covered by the Data Protection Act. If it is “covert” surveillance, then a RIPA case must be authorised beforehand, as presumably would have been in the case Dave references.

      The good thing about these new changes is that the first RIPA and Data item will appear on an Overview Scrutiny meeting agenda soon-ish hopefully, and then any member of the public will be able to submit any question or statement on exactly these topics and expect to see the committee probe officers about their answers to the submissions.

      Jonesthenews is correct that no one can promise that RIPA wont be used, but from now on the number of RIPA authorisations will be publicly debated, so if it shoots up it will be immediately obvious and cllrs (and citizens) will ask questions on the relevant agenda item.

    8. I posted a big comment up yesterday, which seems to be caught in your spam trap?

    9. Gary Hopkins says:

      Dave
      Running surveillance on this type of flytipper is in my view fully justified and the council work with the environment agency on this sort of thing very closely.
      The point about the “diected surveillance” is accurate and relevant to the issue of the dog fouling.The council would not set up a camera to capture a dog fouling offender but in the one instance where a security camera picked up an instance it was found to be valid to prosecute.
      I have been working with Mark and officers on examination of this issue and have to say that evidence of slackness or over use of powers was not a problem.
      What was a problem was the lack of public transparancy and therefore public confidence that things were OK.
      Justice not only has to be done it needs to be seen to be done.

    10. Seebag says:

      GH – in my experience lack of public transparancy and therefore public confidence stem from Ormondroyd’s culture – until that’s fixed we have a big problem.

    11. Bristol Dave says:

      GH – in my experience lack of public transparancy and therefore public confidence stem from Ormondroyd’s culture – until that’s fixed we have a big problem.

      Agreed. Jan appears to have subscribed to the Chairman Mao style management – the (misguided) belief that telling people that a problem is fixed achieves the same result as actually fixing it, for less money. Of course this is complete nonsense as people will know the problem is still there, but such minor details frankly don’t matter to the Strategic Leadership Team. Believe what you’re told, proles.

      This explains the obsession with “marketing” – i.e. if people don’t agree with you, don’t believe you, or don’t do what you want them to, well, it must just be because you “haven’t got the message across properly”, hence the “marketing”.

    12. Bristol Dave says:

      arse, BB can you fix my HTML tags in the post I just submitted please 🙁

    13. Seebag says:

      Minor details don’t bother our Jan – she would rather be gambling our money on the World Cup, or be off somewhere spouting her latest management bollocks about transformation or whatever. This is far more attractive than bothering to empty my bins after 17 days at the busiest time for generating rubbish in the year, after all that’s one of the so so boring things I pay the Council over £2k pa to do.

    14. someone says:

      Seebag, have you noticed that what ever is wrong in your life is always the fault of some one else. I’m sure if you picked up a phone and let someone at BCC know that your bins had not been emptied they would sort it. But in your world nothing is ever your responsibility, which may explain your lack of any real experience.

    15. idm says:

      RIPA does not provide powers. In fact he Coucil does not have to get RIPA authorisation to use surveillabnce techniques – it would simply have problems meeting the level of proof required by the Human RIghts Act if it did not.

      Virtually all the activities covered by RIPA authorisation are investigative techniques (such as underage sale test purchases) that Councils have done for decades without the need to authorise or record them.

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