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Department for Infrastructure uses spying laws 132 times

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) gives numerous government departments and bodies the power to carry out surveillance and intercept communications of private citizens. Picture by Cliff Donaldson

STORMONT’S department for infrastructure has used controversial anti-terror spying laws more than one hundred times in the last five years, it can be revealed.

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), widely known as the "Snooper's Charter", gives numerous government departments and bodies the power to carry out surveillance and intercept communications of private citizens.

The department for infrastructure has used powers under the act on a total of 132 occasions in the last five years.

Last year, these actions were carried out 41 times - more than double the previous year’s figure of 17 and the highest number of annual enforcements by the department in the last half-decade.

This information was disclosed to The Irish News through a freedom of information request.

Officially, RIPA makes provisions for the "interception of communications, the acquisition and disclosure of data relating to communications, the carrying out of surveillance [and] the use of covert human intelligence sources."

This means phone calls, text messages and emails of individuals can be legally intercepted by various authorities, without their knowledge. Individuals can also be followed and physically observed, also without their knowledge.

RIPA was first enshrined in law in 2000, primarily to combat terrorism. Following several public consultations and parliamentary debates, new additions to RIPA were approved in December 2003, April 2005, July 2006 and February 2010, broadening its scope.

In November last year, further expansions to the act were approved, forming new legislation which allowed for mass surveillance, or "bulk data collection", and access to internet records.

By law, more than 20 government departments and associated authorities in Northern Ireland have the right to carry out surveillance and investigations under RIPA. These include: any district council, the PSNI, the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission, and the Fisheries Conservancy Board.

The majority of these bodies contacted by The Irish News said that they have not enforced RIPA on any occasion in the last five years.

In response to the figures, a department of infrastructure spokesperson said "directed surveillance" under RIPA had been authorised to prevent a "suspected fraudulent claim for personal injury compensation".

"The Driver & Vehicle Agency primarily use RIPA powers for the purposes of preventing or detecting crime associated with the use of illegal taxis and buses," they added.

"Directed surveillance authorised under RIPA powers is considered necessary and proportionate in cases where public safety is likely to be compromised and wider fraud is suspected."

 

Meanwhile, both the Northern Ireland Prison Service and the Police Ombudsman refused to disclose the number of occasions they have used the powers, citing "Section 31" of the act, which provides an exemption for law enforcement where disclosing the information could prejudice the administration of justice and the prevention of crime.

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