Town Hall’s ‘covert surveillance’ increases amid crackdown on illegal sublets

The carrying out of ‘covert surveillance’ by Islington Council on residents saw a slight increase last year, according to council documents.

Between 1 April 2018 and 31 March 2019, Islington authorised such spying on six separate occasions as part of Housing Investigations cases, with a further surveillance case conducted so far this financial year.

The Town Hall has not authorised human sources of covert intelligence since 2010, instead relying on communications metadata sourced through a range of different powers, including the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) and the Invesigatory Powers Act 2016 (IPA).

A council report said: “Local authorities cannot authorise the use of intrusive surveillance under RIPA. Intrusive surveillance is surveillance that is carried out in relation to anything taking place on any residential premises or in any private vehicle.

“Images taken with equipment which consistently provide the same detail or quality as if they were taken in residential premises or private vehicles constitutes intrusive surveillance.

“The use of covert surveillance techniques by local authorities was previously the subject of some controversy. The government introduced significant changes under the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012.

“The changes mean that a magistrate’s approval is required before a local authority’s RIPA authorisation can take effect.”

The different cases in which the Town Hall exercised its powers to surveill residents included four cases of illegal subletting.

Two of those cases involved a second crime of benefit fraud, with one also extending to a third crime of a fraudulent right-to-buy application.

The council can use its powers of directed surveillance to source information that can include “any aspect” of a person’s family, professional or business relationships.

Under the most recent of these acts, the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, which governs the lawful obtainment of the ‘who’, ‘when’, ‘where’ and ‘how’ of a communication but not its content, it is understood that a local authority cannot make an application that requires the processing or disclosure of internet connection records for any purpose.

However, two different types of data can be sourced, so-called ‘events’ data and ‘entity’ data.

Permission can be granted for the council to obtain entity data for any criminal investigation, which can include the subscriber of a phone number, the account holder of an email address or the administrator of a specific web page.

Events data must be sourced in pursuit of a criminal conviction of 12 months or more, and can include:

  • tracing origin or destination of communication
  • information identifying the sender or a recipient of a communication
  • itemised timings of calls, and information about amounts of data downloaded or uploaded

This latest increase runs counter to the last few years’ rate of covert surveillance by the council in Islington, which had seen a sharp drop since 2010’s 23 cases.

Up until last year’s increase, that rate had dropped to around one or two per year since 2015.