Wednesday, January 30, 2008

LONDON (LONDON DAILY TELEGRAPH) — British authorities, including those in local municipal councils, are bugging conversations of up to 1,000 people a day, an official report said, prompting critics to warn that the country is in danger of becoming a surveillance state.

Municipal councils, police and intelligence services are tapping and intercepting the phone calls, e-mails and letters of hundreds of thousands of people every year, said the report by Paul Kennedy, the commissioner for interception of communications.

Those being bugged include people suspected of illegal fly-tipping — throwing trash in someone else’s garbage bin — as councils use little-known powers to carry out increasingly sophisticated surveillance to catch offenders.

Mr. Kennedy, who was appointed in April 2006 to oversee domestic electronic surveillance, said the use of the evidence is an “invaluable weapon” in the battle against terrorism and serious crime.

The report gives British Prime Minister Gordon Brown support to push through changes to the law that would allow material gathered by intercepted telephone calls and e-mails to be admissible in trials in court, Bloomberg News service reported.

“It would be prudent for the public to be assured as to the benefits of this highly intrusive investigative tool, particularly in light of the current debate about whether or not intercept product should be used as evidence in a court of law,” Mr. Kennedy wrote. “The benefits of any change in the law are heavily outweighed by the disadvantages.”

More than 1,000 people have been arrested in Britain for terrorism-related offenses since 2001, according to Bloomberg. Spending on counterterrorism has doubled since the September 11 attacks to nearly $4 billion a year.

However, the report also fueled fears that Britain is becoming a state where private communications are routinely monitored.

It also found that more than 1,000 of the bugging operations were flawed.

In some cases, the phones of innocent people were tapped simply because of administrative errors, the report said.

David Winnick, a Labor Party member of the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, said greater legal protection was needed to prevent abuse of surveillance powers.

Britain already has more closed-circuit TV surveillance cameras per person than any other country in the world.

Michael Parker of a group called NO2ID, which campaigns against ID cards, said the figures showed the state’s desire to gather more information about people.

“We are living in a surveillance state,” Mr. Parker said.

The report shows that in the last nine months of 2006, there were 253,557 applications to intercept private communications under surveillance laws. It is understood that most were approved.

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