We have warned on multiple occasions about the abuse of surveillance powers by public authorities and the subsequent importance of having judicial approval for officials who want to snoop on us, whether it is in the ‘real’ world or online.
Last year we highlighted that more than three million authorisations under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000) were issued, leading to questions about how and why the powers are being used. We also published research that shows that HMRC made 41,351 snooping requests for details of phone calls and mobile texts between 2009 and 2011. The only police forces to make more requests in the same period were the Metropolitan police and Merseyside police.
It has since come to light that HMRC has used surveillance legislation to identify a whistleblower who uncovered a ‘sweetheart’ deal with Goldman Sachs. Osita Mba had used the Public Interest Disclosure Act to write to the National Audit Office and two parliamentary committees in 2011 saying that the head of tax, Dave Hartnett, had “let off” Goldman Sachs from paying at least £10m in interest. The identity of Mba was then revealed to HMRC by the clerk of the public accounts committee, who sought clarification that he was a genuine revenue employee.
Following the story appearing in the Guardian in October 2011, Mba was put under internal investigation by the revenue, useing RIPA to access the emails, internet search records and telephone calls of a revenue solicitor, and his wife, Claudia.
Perhaps shockingly for many, RIPA allows HMRC the ability to view highly personal information of taxpayers, including the websites accessed, the mobile calls made or received, the date and time of emails, texts and phone calls. Despite the revenue claiming that RIPA powers “can only be used when investigating serious crime”, it is very clear from the use of the powers in this case, that this isn’t always so.
We have seen how new surveillance powers that are created, intended only for the most serious of crimes, very quickly becomes available to everyone from councils to the Health and Safety Executive. It is unacceptable for public authorities to keep secret details of why they are spying on the public and their own employees and to do so without seeking a court’s approval. Judicial approval for spying on us should be the norm, not the exception and the public have a right to know why and how these powers are being used.