Economy department uses RIPA anti-terror spying laws 200 times
A STORMONT department has been using anti-terror spy laws to catch "rogue traders" and people selling counterfeit goods.
The Department for the Economy has used the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) a total of 209 times in the last five years.
During 2016 RIPA was invoked on 44 occasions, compared to 28 in 2014 - an increase of more than 50 per cent.
The figures were disclosed to The Irish News through a freedom of information request.
Described as a "snooper's charter", RIPA gives police and government bodies powers which allow 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 obtained by various authorities without their knowledge.
RIPA was initially designed to combat terrorism, but in recent years various government departments and arms-length bodies have used the legislation for other means.
The Irish News previously reported how the former Newtownabbey Borough Council employed RIPA on one occasion to investigate food being sold by premises.
In a summary of the types of investigations in which RIPA was used by the Department for the Economy, a spokesperson said it was used to catch "hidden" car traders - people who purport to be private car sellers when they are actually frequent traders.
Also included were sellers of counterfeit goods and "rogue doorstep traders who attempt to hide their identity and location".
The department said: "The Investigatory Powers Act 2000 contains provisions to allow certain public authorities including the department for the economy to access 'communications data' to allow the identification of individuals who are suspected of committing offences and who can only be identified through the mobile phone numbers or IP addresses they are using.
"It would be in these instances that Trading Standards Service would use the provision."
In February, The Irish News revealed that the Department for Infrastructure had also used the legislation 132 times in the last five years to investigate illegal taxis and buses.
The Department for Communities used RIPA 591 times over the same period to investigate suspected benefits cheats.
In Northern Ireland RIPA is used most predominantly by the PSNI.
Since 2012, police have used the controversial law almost 22,000 times for the 'acquisition and disclosure of phone and internet records'.
They have paid nearly £700,000 to internet and telephone companies over this period to access the communications data.