Local authorities launched 10,000 snooping operations last year
Quote:More than half a million requests for highly personal communications data, such as records of private telephone calls and e-mails, were also lodged by councils and law enforcement agencies.
Snooping by local authorities has now become so widespread that a Government watchdog has threatened to strip councils of their powers to spy on people, and Gordon Brown has ordered an inquiry into the rapid increase in the use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa).
It is the latest in a string of controversies surrounding Ripa, which in one case earlier this year was used by a council to mount a covert surveillance operation on a family who had been wrongly accused of breaking rules on school catchment areas.
Opposition MPs said the new figures showed evidence of a "creeping Orwellian state", while the Chief Surveillance Commissioner, Sir Christopher Rose, said some councils were guilty of using Ripa in a "disproportionate" way.
Ripa was originally brought in to help police and the security services combat serious crime and terrorism, but in recent years nearly 800 public bodies have been added to the list of organisations allowed to use the Act to carry out covert surveillance and intercept personal communications.
Privacy campaigners including David Davis, the former shadow home secretary who resigned to campaign against the erosion of civil liberties, say the use of Ripa has spiralled out of control, partly because spying can be authorised by junior town hall officials rather than having to be approved by a judge.
Sir Christopher Rose revealed in his annual report that 9,535 "directed surveillance authorisations" - nearly 30 a day - were granted to public bodies in the 12 months to March 31.
A directed surveillance authorisation is defined as "covert surveillance of individuals while in a public place for the purposes of a specific investigation".
Sir Christopher specifically accused councils of "a serious misunderstanding of the concept of proportionality" and threatened to strip them of their powers
He said: "Many authorities do not recognise that they are vulnerable to criticism... if activity is conducted without appropriate management or if activity is being conducted in a disproportionate manner.
"If authorities wish to retain the protection that Ripa affords, I encourage a greater attention to detail."
Sir Christopher was particularly concerned that there was a risk of councils crossing the legal line into "intrusive surveillance", which they are prohibited from doing.
He said: "It is not acceptable to judge that because directed surveillance is being conducted from a public place this automatically renders the activity overt or to assert that an activity is proportionate because it is the only way to further an investigation."
The Prime Minister ordered a review into the powers, to report back in the Autumn.
He told MPs: "The Government is reviewing those public authorities that have access to these powers to ensure that they have a continuing and justifiable requirement for them.
"On completion the Government will list the authorities that can use each of the powers and the purposes for which they can use them, and set out revised codes of practice."
A separate report from Sir Paul Kennedy, the Interception of Communications Commissioner, revealed that police, security services and other public bodies made 519,260 requests to "communications providers" such as phone and internet firms for billing records and other information.
The total - amounting to more than 1,400 a day - compared with an average of less than 350,000 requests a year in the previous two years.
It also showed that 154 local authorities made 1,707 requests for "communications data" in the year to the end of March.
Only a handful of the requests were for "itemised call records", Sir Paul found, but "quite a number of local authorities" had failed to comply with the commissioner's code of practice.
Often this was because of not enough training of key council workers into how the legislation works.
Shadow Home Secretary Dominic Grieve, said: "The public will be alarmed that so much intrusive surveillance was authorised into their lives.
"These powers should be deployed only under the greatest need, and to the standards of scrutiny expected if the police or security services were using them."
The Liberal Democrats said that the report showed evidence of "the creeping Orwellian state".
Chris Huhne, the party's home affairs spokesman, said: "Measures that were intended to be used to fight terrorism and organised crime have instead been used to snoop on ordinary people's children, dogs and bins.
"Surveillance powers are too easily abused by over-zealous officials on the hundreds of public authorities entitled to use them. Their use should be reined back and restricted to important cases only."
Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights group Liberty, added: "The most intrusive forms of surveillance must be authorised by judges - not administrators, policeman or politicians."
Local authorities complained that they were caught "between a rock and a hard place" when it came to applying snooping powers.
Sir Simon Milton, chairman of the Local Government Association, insisted that the powers were necessary to deal with legitimate concerns from local people about "fly tippers, rogue traders and those defrauding the council tax or housing benefit system".
He said: "Without these powers, councils would not be able to provide the level of reassurance and protection local people demand and deserve. Councils have been criticised for using the powers in relation to issues that can be portrayed as trivial or not considered a crime by the public.
"By their nature, surveillance powers are never to be used lightly but it is important that councils don't lose the power to use them when appropriate."
Councils cannot bug telephone conversations, a power reserved for the police and security services and which must be authorised by the Home Office.
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