Police in Scotland have used RIPSA 85,000 times in the last 5 years

But there are concerns that it is being used too extensively in Scotland. For example, in a total population of about 300,000, the Northern Constabulary made more than 20,000 RIPSA applications – one for every 15 people over the last five years. Since a single RIPSA application can include multiple targets, the true extent could be greater.

Strathclyde Police, Scotland’s largest force, made the highest number of applications, issuing nearly 5000 requests to telecoms companies in the last year alone. It prompted Nick Pickles, director at civil liberties group Big Brother Watch, to warn that Scotland is slipping towards ‘the same kind of extreme surveillance seen in China and Iran.’ “Clearly, the police need to be able to access sensitive communications data but it’s not clear that it’s only being used for serious crimes.”

Indiscriminate use of the associated act (RIPA) in the rest of the UK resulted in a review of its use by the coalition government. Liberty (the National Council for Civil Liberties) points out that 5 different types of surveillance can be authorized by the act: interception of communications, bugs, filming, use of covert operatives, and access to communications data. “Under RIPA,” Liberty notes, “hundreds of public bodies have access to the last three types of surveillance including over 470 local authorities. Surveillance can be authorised for a wide range of purposes which includes such vague purposes as preventing ‘disorder’ or collecting tax.”

An example can be seen in a freedom of information request that is published on the Moray Council website. Over the last few years it shows that the use of RIPSA involved investigations ‘related to egg deliveries’, ‘underage sale of spray paints’, and ‘underage sale of tobacco.’

Scottish Tory justice spokesman David McLetchie has called for a review. “This amounts to an invasion of privacy and civil liberties. The police require such powers in order to effectively investigate serious crime, but the extent and justification for their use must be kept under review. Authority to tap phones and intercept emails should not be given lightly,” reports the Scottish Daily Record.

The irony is that despite such public – and political – concerns over RIPA and RIPSA, the government is now planning even wider surveillance powers with the proposed Communications Act. “Instead of reversing already problematic powers that allow for mass surveillance,” says Liberty, “the Coalition now proposes to go much further: creating a Snoopers’ Charter by any other name.” The Communications Bill proposes that communications traffic data (not content) be retained by the telecommunications companies and made freely available to law enforcement – which will override much of the current use of RIPA and RIPSA.

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