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UK to restrict use of surveillance law for minor infractions

[JURIST] The ability of councils in the UK to monitor citizens for minor infractions will be curtailed [press release], according to Home Secretary Jacqui Smith [official profile] on Friday. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) [text], passed in 2000, gives broad powers of surveillance to councils, with reasonable suspicion, to watch with closed-circuit television and read the e-mails of those suspected of crimes. Though the legislation was originally meant to target terrorism and serious crime, RIPA does not rule out the use of its powers for tackling lesser crimes such as littering and illegal trash-dumping by otherwise law-abiding citizens. The Conservative Party and Liberal Democrats [party websites] both favor restricting the use of RIPA. The Home Office [official website] is considering redefining what groups are permitted to use the RIPA legislation, such as restricting its use to magistrate-sanctioned searches only, and has begun an investigation on the subject [Times report], seeking public input [press release].

The reevaluation of RIPA comes after condemnation of other British surveillance measures. Earlier this week, the European Commission informed the UK that it is failing to follow European Union Internet privacy laws [JURIST report]. In February, the House of Lords released a report [JURIST report] holding that privacy interests of citizens should be balanced with concerns for security and safety and warning that the widespread use of surveillance cameras infringes on privacy. In February 2008, the Home Office said that the government has no plans [JURIST report] to create a compulsory DNA database for British citizens. Rights groups have criticized the National DNA Database for retaining information on criminal suspects after they are found innocent, and for displaying a racial bias [JURIST reports] against minorities. In September 2007, UK rights group Liberty [advocacy website] released a report [press release; JURIST report] arguing that the government was endangering the privacy of law-abiding Britons by increasingly using mass surveillance to profile people rather than targeting individual criminal suspects using intelligence-led policing.

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