Against this backdrop comes a bizarre, but not entirely unexpected example of the normalisation and extension of counter-terrorism laws: a law initially justified as a terror prevention measure is now being used by local councils to spy on residents for matters falling a long way short of serious organised crime.
The UK government said that the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 was intended to provide:
"a statutory basis for the authorisation and use by the security and intelligence agencies, law enforcement and other public authorities of covert surveillance, agents, informants and undercover officers. It will regulate the use of these techniques and safeguard the public from unnecessary invasions of their privacy."
To this end surveillance was only to be authorised when "necessary", meaning on grounds that it was needed:
- in the interests of national security;
- for the purpose of preventing or detecting crime or preventing disorder;
- in the interests of the economic well-being of the UK;
- in the interests of public safety;
- for the purpose of protecting public health;
- for the purpose of assessing or collecting any tax, duty, levy or other imposition,
- contribution or charge payable to a government department; or
- for other purposes which may be specified by order of the Secretary of State.
We have so far seen examples where:
"a family in Poole in Dorset were tracked covertly for nearly three weeks to check they lived in a school catchment area"
(which, in fact, they did) and one council has admitted
that its officers were in the middle of an undercover operation using digital cameras and binoculars to catch those failing to scoop up their dogs' poo.
What is most worrying to my mind, though, is not the use of powers introduced to fight serious crime being delegated to local councils so they can snoop on poorly-behaved neighbours. Nor is it the blatant waste of resources. It's that this is proving popular in some quarters.
If those who will trade liberty for a little brief security deserve neither and will lose both, what is the fate of those who will trade liberty for slightly cleaner pavements?