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Death of the town hall Stasi: Council jobsworths face two years in jail if they snoop on the public for trivial offences

Death of the town hall Stasi: Council jobsworths face two years in jail if they snoop on the public for trivial offences 

  • Powers previously used to check if bins are being put out on the right day
  • Also caught parents cheating catchment areas and people leaving dog foul
  • Councils also face an outright ban on accessing internet browsing history
  • The safeguards have been included in new Investigatory Powers Bill  
Town Hall busybodies who spy on the public for ‘trivial’ offences face two years in jail under laws unveiled today

Town Hall busybodies who spy on the public for ‘trivial’ offences face two years in jail under laws unveiled today

Town Hall busybodies who spy on the public for ‘trivial’ offences face two years in jail under laws unveiled today.

Councils also face an outright ban on accessing the public’s internet browsing history amid fears they could misuse sweeping new State surveillance powers.

The safeguards are included in the new Investigatory Powers Bill in a bid to persuade MPs and the public the controversial legislation will not turn into a ‘snoopers’ charter’.

In the past, the so-called ‘town hall Stasi’ have mounted James Bond-style operations to check if bins are being put out on the wrong day or parents are cheating school catchment area rules.

But the legislation, to be unveiled in the House of Commons today, is still expected to trigger a massive political row and face a lengthy battle to become law. It will:

  • Compel internet firms to keep details of the public’s internet records for 12 months;
  • Force web giants to hand over the contents of encrypted apps and emails on production of a warrant; 
  • Allow the security services to hack into personal computers and monitor the contents; 
  • Set down in law the right of the Government’s listening post, GCHQ, to hoover up millions of pieces of people’s personal data – including mobile phone numbers and internet searches. 

Today’s law will also include protections against MPs having their communications spied on as part of a concerted drive to avoid a Parliamentary revolt.

Under the draft Bill, technology firms will be required to keep records for 12 months, detailing when emails were sent or when people connected to social media sites, such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp.

With a warrant, MI5, MI6, GCHQ and the police will able to find out details of the website a person has visited, but not which pages they have viewed on that site. A further warrant would be required to view the content of any communications.

Last night, Whitehall sources said councils would be prohibited from having any access to internet records. In limited circumstances, such as when they are investigating benefit fraud or dumping illegal waste, officials will still have access to mobile phone and other communications data.

But any Town Hall official who is caught misusing the data – or training it on people suspected of only ‘trivial’ offences – will be guilty of a criminal offence.

The maximum jail sentence will be two years. It will apply to all public authorities who ‘knowingly or recklessly obtain communications without lawful authority’.

A government source said: ‘Sometimes communications data is the only way to identify offenders, particularly where offences are committed online.

Last night, Whitehall sources said councils would be prohibited from having any access to internet records. Above, government buildings on Whitehall, London

Last night, Whitehall sources said councils would be prohibited from having any access to internet records. Above, government buildings on Whitehall, London

‘But it is important that people understand that communications data is only ever used in a necessary, proportionate and accountable way.’

In 2012, it emerged that Town Halls had been authorised to use spying powers 9,607 times over the previous three years – the equivalent of nine missions every day. The research by Big Brother Watch discovered 26 local authorities have used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) to spy on residents to see whose pets were responsible for dog fouling. Another seven authorities used their powers to investigate suspected breaches of the smoking ban. Suffolk County Council conducted a ‘test purchase of dating agency services’.

Since then, the law has been changed to state that a local authority which wishes to obtain communications data requires the approval of a JP or magistrate. Today’s law will also include protections against MPs having their communications spied on.

MPs voiced their fury last month when a tribunal ruled the so-called Wilson Doctrine, an historical convention which barred the use of surveillance against politicians, had no basis in law.

Members demanded to know how many warrants had been issued by ministers authorising snooping on their phone calls, emails and internet use. They will now be given specific safeguards, above and beyond those which the public have.

Officials claim the Bill will set ‘new standards for openness and transparency’, including ‘world-leading oversight arrangements’.

But Whitehall insiders are braced for a ferocious fight with civil liberties groups, campaigning MPs and the House of Lords. The battle – which will last for six months or more – is certain to focus on whether ministers or judges should give approval for intrusive spying operations, such as bugging a phone or reading the content of a suspect’s emails.

Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs, backed by some Tory backbenchers, insist ministers should hand over responsibility to the judiciary. But Theresa May, who signed 2,345 requests last year, is reluctant to give up the power to judges who are not directly accountable to Parliament or the public.

There are also concerns about the police and security services being able to get warrants signed in the middle of the night for ‘life or death’ operations. Mrs May is understood to favour a new regime where ministers would sign the warrant, but it would be scrutinised by a senior judge afterwards

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