Saturday, April 12, 2008

Surveillance and council spying (BBC)

There have been several interesting news stories this week. This one caught my eye because it is another example of a story that can be twisted depending on which media outlet is telling the story. In my opinion the BBC article is a fair balanced view, although some of their tv coverage has been more sensationalist.

The sensationalist version is that a local council has used terrorism surveillance laws to monitor whether a family were telling the truth about where the live.

The instant reaction is how much of an over reaction that is by the council, a misuse of legislation and yet another example of how the UK is turning into a police state. You can read or see all of the above in different parts of the media.

I even heard 'police state' mention by a commentator on BBC News 24. Which if you read many of my articles you realise that such a comment would be opinion passing itself off as news, which in itself is misleading and inaccurate. Especially if you don't know the political leaning, previous commentary on issues.

I digress slightly about commentary but what I am suggesting is if you have prior knowledge of the commentator you have an idea of how to treat their comments, if you like assign a credibility value. For instance hypothetically, Jeremy Clarkson and Sir Ian Blair make the comment that speed cameras are ineffective in reducing road deaths. If Jeremy Clarkson says it you know he is mouthing off as he always does, as he is a world renown speed enforcement hater. However if Sir Ian Blair says it you treat it with a bit more respect as presumably you trust his opinion more.

This of course assumes you are able to rationalise facts and don't hold the completely opposite view that Jeremy Clarkson is a genius and Sir Ian Blair is a fool. If you do, think of what you might think if Jeremy Clarkson said that you should keep to the speed limits at all times and Sir Ian Blair said the same.

Anyway, the point is if you don't know a bit about the commentator how can you make a judgement of credibility on an isolated comment. So John Brown comes out and says that speed cameras are ineffective. The question should be why is he saying that, what's his background? The danger with unknown commentators is we make a quick judgement, if they affirm our beliefs then they are right, if they don't they are clearluy biased or insane.

Surely we should be willing to explore whether they are right or wrong, but unfortunately the media don't always give us that opportunity.

I digress, we were talking about the use of RIPA laws and survelliance.

First we need to know what RIPA is supposed to be used for. According to the home office website RIPA is

"The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) legislates for using methods of surveillance and information gathering to help the prevention of crime, including terrorism."
Do not focus on the buzzword of terrorism, it is about preventing crime. Basically and I am not a legal expert it legislates the use of surveillance and information gathering when a criminal activity is suspected. My understanding is that you have to have reasonable suspicion of a criminal offence taking place to be granted rights to conduct surveillance.

If we take the surveillance that this article talks about, the council suspects that the family may be making a fraudulent claim and giving a false address. We don't know exactly what information they had but maybe they had two address on file, or the family had provided documents with a different address. Presumably the council must have had some evidence for the RIPA to be granted. Agencies are not allowed to conduct surveillance with out a RIPA application unless they have an immediate need which prevents them from submitting an application.

If you are interested you can look at the seven page application they would have had to submit. It includes questions on whether it is intrusive or proportionate to the need. It is also submitted from a senior officer, in the form the suggestion is senior department head which again suggests that internally to the council a number of people would have reviewed the request.

This application is then reviewed and approved I would assume in a similar way to the police applying for warrants to search premises.

In other words given that the RIPA was granted it should follow that the approach by the council was appropriate and responsible.

Although criminal activity was not proved the family openly admit they resided at the address within the catchment area and then moved out after the deadline had passed. Depending on how you look at things this could still be considered fraud or not in the spirit of fairness to other families.

The BBC article mentions similar surveillance by the council. In the three cases the council investigated two other families had their places withdrawn. This limited statistical evidence would suggest that the council applies the policy fairly, investigating only those where fraud is suspected.

Certain parts of the media may suggest that anything less than a 100% is unacceptable however if this were the case I would be more suspicious that the council is letting people getting away with it. If you were using a better known police comparison you would not suggest that a 100% of suspects arrested were guilty.

On a final note the final quote from a teaching union representative that if you ask people what there address is they will tell you the truth is a bit naive. If people really want something they will lie or in their eyes bend the truth, the families concerned probably don't consider what they are doing as wrong just playing the system and they would suggest that the end justifies the means.

In summary we should be celebrating that such cheaters are being investigated and glad that such regulation is in place to control surveillance. Instead of calling the UK a 'police state' given that this story suggests that minor fraud is endemic across the population then the UK could be said to be a 'nation of cheaters'.

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