It has become commonplace to call Britain a “surveillance society,” a place where security cameras lurk at every corner, giant databases keep track of intimate personal details and the government has extraordinary powers to intrude into citizens’ lives.
A report in 2007 by the lobbying group Privacy International placed Britain in the bottom five countries for its record on privacy and surveillance, on a par with Singapore.
But the intrusions visited on Jenny Paton, a 40-year-old mother of three, were startling just the same. Suspecting Ms. Paton of falsifying her address to get her daughter into the neighborhood school, local officials here began a covert surveillance operation. They obtained her telephone billing records. And for more than three weeks in 2008, an officer from the Poole education department secretly followed her, noting on a log the movements of the “female and three children” and the “target vehicle” (that would be Ms. Paton, her daughters and their car).
It turned out that Ms. Paton had broken no rules. Her daughter was admitted to the school. But she has not let the matter rest. Her case, now scheduled to be heard by a regulatory tribunal, has become emblematic of the struggle between personal privacy and the ever more powerful state here.
The Poole Borough Council, which governs the area of Dorset where Ms. Paton lives with her partner and their children, says it has done nothing wrong.
In a way, that is true: under a law enacted in 2000 to regulate surveillance powers, it is legal for localities to follow residents secretly. Local governments regularly use these surveillance powers — which they “self-authorize,” without oversight from judges or law enforcement officers — to investigate malfeasance like illegally dumping industrial waste, loan-sharking and falsely claiming welfare benefits.
But they also use them to investigate reports of noise pollution and people who do not clean up their dogs’ waste. Local governments use them to catch people who fail to recycle, people who put their trash out too early, people who sell fireworks without licenses, people whose dogs bark too loudly and people who illegally operate taxicabs.
“Does our privacy mean anything?” Ms. Paton said in an interview. “I haven’t had a drink for 20 years, but there is nothing that has brought me closer to drinking than this case.”
The law in question is known as the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, or RIPA, and it also gives 474 local governments and 318 agencies — including the Ambulance Service and the Charity Commission — powers once held by only a handful of law enforcement and security service organizations.
Under the law, the localities and agencies can film people with hidden cameras, trawl through communication traffic data like phone calls and Web site visits and enlist undercover “agents” to pose, for example, as teenagers who want to buy alcohol.
In a report this summer, Sir Christopher Rose, the chief surveillance commissioner, said that local governments conducted nearly 5,000 “directed surveillance missions” in the year ending in March and that other public authorities carried out roughly the same amount.
Local officials say that using covert surveillance is justified. The Poole Borough Council, for example, used it to detect and prosecute illegal fishing in Poole Harbor.
“RIPA is an essential tool for local authority enforcement which we make limited use of in cases where it is proportionate and there are no other means of gathering evidence,” Tim Martin, who is in charge of legal and democratic services for Poole, which is southwest of London, said in a statement.
The fuss over the law comes against a backdrop of widespread public worry about an increasingly intrusive state and the growing circulation of personal details in vast databases compiled by the government and private companies.
“Successive U.K. governments have gradually constructed one of the most extensive and technologically advanced surveillance systems in the world,” the House of Lords Constitution Committee said in a recent report. It continued: “The development of electronic surveillance and the collection and processing of personal information have become pervasive, routine and almost taken for granted.”