London [UK], Dec. 26 : A mass freedom of information request has revealed that 186 local authorities in Britain used the government's Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) to gather evidence via secret listening devices, cameras and private detectives.
According to a report in The Guardian, councils were given permission to carry out more than 55,000 days of covert surveillance over five years, including spying on people walking dogs, feeding pigeons and fly-tipping.
Among the detailed examples provided, Wolverhampton used covert surveillance to check on the sale of dangerous toys and car clocking; Slough to aid an investigation into an illegal puppy farm; and Westminster to crack down on the selling of fireworks to children.
Meanwhile, Lancaster city council used the act, in 2012, for "targeted dog fouling enforcement" in two hotspots over 11 days; Midlothian council used the powers to monitor dog barking and Allerdale borough council gathering evidence about who was guilty of feeding pigeons.
A spokeswoman pointed out that the law had since changed and RIPA could only now be used if criminal activity was suspected.
The revelation came in a huge freedom of information exercise, carried out by the Liberal Democrats. Critics of the spying legislation say the government said it would only be used when absolutely necessary to protect British people from extreme threats.
Brian Paddick, the Lib Dem peer who represents the party on home affairs, said: "It is absurd that local authorities are using measures primarily intended for combating terrorism for issues as trivial as a dog barking or the sale of theatre tickets.
Spying on the public should be a last resort not an everyday tool." He argued that the new Investigatory Powers Act, which will take in Ripa powers alongside a raft of new measures, would restrict the ability of local authorities to monitor people's communications.
But he also said it would give "mass surveillance powers to a huge number of government bodies". The freedom of information request also revealed a number of examples of councils using RIPA as a way of checking up on benefit claimants.
One example was checking up on those claiming to be single parents. Other local authorities drew on the powers to crack down on the distress caused by anti-social behaviour.
Ironically, the finding came in response to a legal challenge initially brought by the Brexit secretary, David Davis, when he was a backbench MP, and Tom Watson, Labour's deputy leader, over the legality of Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) bulk interception of call records and online messages.