RIPA provides a statutory basis for the authorisation and use by public authorities of covert surveillance and covert human intelligence sources.
Surveillance includes observing, following, eavesdropping, filming or recording. Where this is done covertly and is likely to obtain private information it will require an authorisation under RIPA.
RIPA makes a distinction between:
Using covert human intelligence sources.
Intrusive surveillance is surveillance that takes place in private places such as a private residence or vehicle where individuals would have a high expectation of privacy.
It is limited to the law enforcement and intelligence agencies combating serious crime and in the interests of national security.
Approval of intrusive surveillance conducted by law enforcement is by an independent surveillance commissioner; approval when conducted by the intelligence agencies is by Secretary of State warrant.
Directed surveillance is essentially covert surveillance of individuals while in a public place for the purpose of a specific investigation or operation conducted in a way that is likely to obtain private information about a person.
A wider range of public authorities can carry out directed surveillance. The public authorities are listed in statutory instruments passed by parliament.
Covert human intelligence sources
A covert human intelligence source is someone authorised to covertly establish or maintain a relationship in order to provide information to another person, or to covertly disclose information obtained from that relationship.
The person acting as a covert human intelligence source can be an undercover officer or an informant.
In cases where a member of the public provides a tip-off to a public authority and is asked to go back and verify facts or to obtain further information then the relationship the member of the public establishes with the person under investigation hides the real purpose behind it.
In these cases the public authority may need to manage the informant as a covert human intelligence source under RIPA.
Again, when a public authority member of staff acts undercover to hide his true identity or motivation he needs to be treated as a covert human intelligence source.
Figures from the most recent Office of Surveillance Commissioners' annual report show:
In 2007-08 there were a total of 33,359 RIPA authorisations for covert surveillance (23,620 for law enforcement agencies and 9,739 other public authorities)
Of the 33,359 covert surveillance authorisations, 28,302 were for directed surveillance (18,767 for law enforcement and 9,535 for other public authorities) and 4,702 for covert human intelligence sources (4,498 law enforcement and 204 other public authorities).
Non-RIPA covert surveillance
The Intelligence Services Act 1994 (new window) and the Police Act 1997 (new window) provide lawful authority for entry on or interference with property or with wireless telegraphy by the intelligence services, the police and other law enforcement agencies.
Intelligence agencies require prior authorisation by the Secretary of State before such entry or interference.
Enforcement agency authorisation is by designated senior officer or in certain circumstances, such as when confidential information subject to legal or journalistic privilege is likely to be obtained, with the approval of an independent surveillance commissioner.