Councils in Scotland have used covert surveillance hundreds of times in the past three years, BBC News revealed this week.
Data obtained by BBC Scotland shows that local authorities authorised 501 clandestine investigations, sometimes for relatively minor offences.
These investigations, carried out under counter-terrorism laws, were intended to gather evidence in cases ranging from drugs and prostitution to dog fouling and underage use of sunbeds.
The Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Scotland) Act (Ripsa) was introduced in 2000 to help combat serious crime and terrorism. It allows public authorities to install hidden cameras, to bug or photograph someone in a public place, to use undercover agents, and to secretly follow people who are suspected of breaking the law.
The legislation states that these powers can be used to prevent or detect crime or to prevent disorder, to act in the interests of public safety, and to protect public health.
As a safeguard, use of covert surveillance techniques must be authorised by council officials, and only used where it is considered necessary and proportionate.
But campaigners argue that these powers are being abused and more accountability is needed for intrusive surveillance.
Moreover, it’s not clear that the surveillance is a significant help in catching criminals. Remarkably few investigations authorised under Ripsa and the separate Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) were directly linked with a conviction or penalty notice.
Data collated by BBC Scotland showed that no criminal action followed 26 authorisations given by Aberdeenshire Council, while South Ayrshire’s 18 authorisations led to one conviction and one fine.
“If these powers are being used, especially the more intrusive of the powers, and there is no arrest or prosecution, then questions should certainly be asked as to why this is the case,” commented Emma Carr, the director of Big Brother Watch.