Cambridge City Council Covert CCTV Deployed In Someone’s Home

Thursday, October 11th, 2012. 3:50pm

Screenshot of meeting papers for the Cambridge City Council's Strategy and Resources Scrutiny Committee on Monday, 15th October, 2012 5.00 pm

Papers for Cambridge City Council’s Strategy and Resources Scrutiny Committee on Monday, 15th October, 2012 5.00 pm

A report on Cambridge City Council’s use of covert surveillance is to be taken to the council’s Strategy and Resources Committee on Monday the 15th of October at 17.00 in the Guildhall.

The key message from the report is simply:

[The council] has not authorised the use of RIPA powers in the period covered by this report (October 2011 to October 2012)

The report however is accompanied by a “background document“, a committee paper from a year ago, in October 2011, which details how the council accidentally did something it now considers amounts to intrusive surveillance, (something the council is not permitted to authorise). The section states:

The City Council is very sparing in its use of RIPA powers. In fact, it has authorised use of RIPA powers on only one occasion since October 2008 – in February 2010. The authorisation on that occasion was for directed surveillance by covert CCTV as part of co-operation with a Police investigation into incidents of serious domestic assault. Covert CCTV was installed in the victim’s home with her full co- operation to gather evidence against the perpetrator. Whilst the officers were satisfied that the surveillance was appropriate in supporting the victim and in gathering evidence of serious criminal behaviour, the Police, rather than the City Council should have authorised the surveillance. Technically, this amounted to intrusive surveillance, which the Police can authorise, but the Council cannot. The guidance has been strengthened to emphasise this by ensuring that applications are scrutinised by the Head of Legal Services before they are considered by an authorising officer.

I have the following questions and concerns in relation to this:

  • Why does Liberal Democrat run Cambridge City Council even own covert CCTV equipment, given it has not recently been using its surveillance powers?
  • Why have we got city council officers playing at being police officers and getting involved in investigating and seeking evidence of a serious crime such as domestic assault? I think this is part of a wider problem of council officers straying into policing territory.

The minutes of the October 2011 meeting at which this was first raised state:

The Director of Customer and Community Services confirmed that a conservative approach had been taken and most requests to RIPA powers had been refused. Permission had been given on one occasion and with hindsight permission for this request required Police approval. Following that incident, the controls had been tightened and there had been no further use of RIPA.

Despite standing on platforms promising voters they will stand up for civil liberties and the rule of law local Liberal Democrat councillors have been defending their council’s actions.

Cllr Ian Manning appears to be suggesting it was acceptable that the council deployed its covert CCTV in this instance, despite it being illegal for the council to do so, because there was some co-operation with the police involved in the investigation. Cllr Manning wrote:

one use since 2008 & at req of police is hardly dropping liberty…routinely these req are turned down

The report does not say that in this case the police requested the City Council to deploy its covert surveillance equipment. That the council officers were working with the police in relation to the investigation is far from the same as saying the police asked for the surveillance. Despite councillors asking for statistics on refused applications this is something officers continue to fail to provide in their reports.

Liberal Democrat MP Julian Huppert has stated:

this was two years ago, and was ended as soon as cllrs found out about it

Clearly councillors did know about this, and discussed it in a public meeting for which the papers were available online, a year ago and they sought assurances then that it would stop. The fact this recently made the press when it was uncovered shows how important it is for more people to follow and publicise what goes on in the council to reduce the chance of things slipping past. I would like to see the council themselves do more to make what they do accessible – for example writing in an accessible and timely manner about decisions taken at council meetings. This was newsworthy material which wasn’t spotted, despite it being technically in the public domain, for over a year.

City Councillor Colin Rosenstiel has stated:

Read the report! Error was that wrong official signed the form, an honest mistake. Better now magistrate needed

There is no suggestion in the published material that an application to authorise the surveillance was made at all, so it is not a case of it being signed off by the wrong person. The council cannot authorise intrusive covert surveillance in any case and had the council officer involved managed to make an application to the appropriate police officer 9who could have authorised such use) I’m sure they would have been told to go away.

If city council officers are routinely conducting intrusive surveillance on behalf of the police then that is something councillors and the public ought be told.

It appears Liberal Democrat Cllr Rosenstiel may be saying that if the police had approached the council with a valid RIPA authorisation for intrusive surveillance from within the police than the council would have been right to co-operate and perhaps loan the equipment to the police, however that’s far from what is being reported to have happened .

Requiring an authorisation from a magistrate, as will be required for all council surveillance regulated by RIPA from November 2012 will provide an extra safeguard, but the work of the magistrates will almost certainly not be done in public (in the same way as search warrants are not considered in open court for obvious reasons), and it is still councillors who will need to review the council’s activity in the public domain.

The October 2012 report to councillors recommends councillors require the council to try even harder to educate its staff about what is and is not acceptable in terms of covert surveillance “to ensure that surveillance is only authorised in accordance with RIPA”.

This latest incident follows previous cases where the Liberal Democrat run Cambridge City Council has used cameras to track beggars in the city centre and monitor punt operators.

Some of My Related Previous Articles and Activism:

11 comments/updates on “Cambridge City Council Covert CCTV Deployed In Someone’s Home

  1. Richard Taylor Article author

    A key omission from the report to Monday’s meeting appears to be information on survilance authorised by others such as the police but carried out by Cambridge City Council officers. I would expect a report reviewing the authority’s “use of RIPA” to cover this.

    Is it the case that Cambridge City Council Officers do bug homes when the police authorise them to do so? Was Cllr Rosenstiel right to say the only thing that went wrong here was the wrong official signing off the form.

    I would like to see this point raised during the meeting.

  2. Richard Taylor Article author

    Cambridge resident Sam Smith has tweeted:

    I can’t seem to find a reference in the surveillance or interception commissioners report to this – was it reported?

    Paragraph 5.4 of the Background document / October 2011 report states:

    The Office of Surveillance Commissioners carried out an inspection of the Council’s RIPA policy and procedures in April 2010. The report comments on the authorisation of intrusive surveillance described in paragraph 5.1, but it is in other respects positive about the Council’s approach to RIPA. Copies of the report are available from the Head of Legal Services, subject to redaction of an appendix which contains personal information about a third party.

    I presume Sam is noting there is no reference to the incident in the national annual reports from the Surveillance Commissioner.

    In 2008 I made a FOI request for reports etc. on Cambridge City Council by the Office of the Surveillance Commissioner:

    No one appeared yet to have made a request in public for the :

    Office of Surveillance Commissioners Inspection Report: April/May 2010 (excluding the Appendix).

    I have now made a request for that document to be released.

    The latest update to councillors for the October 2012 meeting makes no mention of any more recent inspection or report, I sought clarification that there had in fact not been any more recent inspection in my request.

  3. Richard Taylor Article author

    I’ve submitted a public question to the meeting which will consider the report:

    Have council officers carried, or been asked to carry out, covert surveillance where RIPA authorisation has been obtained via another body such as the police during the period covered by this report? If so, why has information on this been omitted from the report? Why does Cambridge City Council even possess, never mind use, the equipment to covertly bug someone’s home?

    Anyone can turn up and speak on this at the meeting, there’s no need to give advanced notice but the chair/committee manager needs to be notified before the meeting gets underway.

  4. Richard Taylor Article author

    I attended the committee meeting and asked the question quoted in the above comment.

    Council leader Tim Bick said there had been no cases in the reporting period of council officers carrying out covert surveillance on the basis of RIPA authorisations by other bodies, and such cases were very rare, he mentioned there had been one such case in 2011 where the police had asked for a specific incident to be monitored using the city’s CCTV system.

    Cllr Bick said that in the future he would ask officers to include such cases of council officers acting on authorisations by other bodies in the monitoring report.

    Cllr Bick said the council possess no covert surveillance equipment; and all surveillance is carried out using the public CCTV system, even the case from February 2010 where as noted in the article above “Covert CCTV was installed in the victim’s home”.

    This just doesn’t make sense. The city council’s public CCTV cameras are surely too large to be installed in a home in a covert manner, and in any case the council’s own CCTV policy forbids them from being deployed in a covert manner. Chris Havergal, the local government correspondent from the Cambridge News tweeted to say:

    @RTaylorUK Intrigued to know how these cameras could have been used covertly… aren’t they quite large?


    @RTaylorUK Will check whether cameras were physically in the home, or whether they were pointed looking into the home.

    It appears to me there is an inconsistency here. I published a photo of an RCCTV camera to illustrate a previous article.

    The council has in the past had policies on using covert CCTV cameras for use, for example in monitoring flytipping. The council’s current CCTV code of practice states, in section 1.3 “No hidden cameras will be used”.

    I have made the full agenda item available on YouTube:

    Cllr Brown used the opportunity to express her view about what the council did when it bugged someone’s home, saying

    I don’t think it was strictly speaking covert as it was actually at the householder’s request.

    Cllr Bick said:

    The last part of the question was about why does the council possess bugging equipment. Well we don’t. We don’t have any kind of CCTV equipment that isn’t also used on the street. We do possess three re-deployable CCTV units which more typically are deployed for short term periods where there may be problems with anti-social behaviour or such-like in the public realm and the equipment that was used in the case that was 2.5 years ago and reported last week and a year ago was involving that equipment there was no specialist bugging equipment it was just overt equipment that was used on that occasion covertly.

  5. Sam

    How large do you think a CCTV camera is?

    Now look at your mobile phone or iPod?

    There is no reason that the CCTV camera doesn’t use the same camera as an iPod or similar.

    There are slightly different power and storage arrangements, but that could be the equivalent of a 9V battery and a memory stick. Still rather small.

  6. cee.k

    if anyone in the council, police etc want to catch some criminals please install covert cctv [Address in East Chesterton, Cambridge, removed] facing the stairwell. You will find: class A and class B drug dealing, drug taking, drinking and fighting, residents getting beaten up, graffiti, urination, gangs giving young girls drugs, and so on.

    the situation has been reported to the council and police multiple times by multiple residents; result? nothing, no police, no cctv..

    no doubt someone will get stabbed soon and then it will be ‘another one’ of those stories that you read about in the newspaper; sad but true.

    1. Richard Taylor Article author

      I have removed the address because I don’t think it’s right to make this kind of allegation of criminality in public; and doing so could potentially be defamatory.

    1. Richard Taylor Article author

      There’s an allegation of criminality, I don’t know if it’s true or not. An allegation of criminality certainly could be defamatory.

      I think depersonalising the comment by noting the area of the city it relates to, rather than a specific address, enables the performance of the police and council and their policies to be discussed without identifying the individual(s) involved.

      The current state of UK libel law does impact on freedom to discuss and debate the way our society is run, and I would like to see reform, but in this case I think it’s right not to publicly identify the address.

      I note at previous North Area Committee meetings similar complaints of a lack of council and police response to properties where drug dealing and related activity has been reported have been raised. Councillors currently have drug dealing set as a local priority and have the chance to hold the police to account for their performance in this area in February 2014, councillors ought demand a detailed report.

      I certainly don’t think the council ought be deploying covert CCTV, though its something the police might well consider proportionate depending on what they suspect is happening.

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