RIPA in Britain restricts people’s rights to privacy

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Right now, as I’m writing this article, local officials — let’s say, members of the Carnegie Mellon administration — are standing behind me, watching and taking note of every letter, every word, every sentence I type.

Obviously, the above sentence is not true. But if I lived in Britain, this scenario would not be nearly so impossible. Actually, the most absurd thing about this scenario happening in Britain isn’t even that it’s well within the realm of possibility; it’s that I wouldn’t even be at all aware that it was happening while it was going on.

Called the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), the law gives 474 local governments and 318 agencies in Britain the powers that previously only a select number of law enforcement and security service organizations had, according to a recent New York Times article. This law allows the local governments and agencies to film people with hidden cameras, view communication such as phone call logs and web site traffic, and hire undercover agents.

And while I do understand that in some cases, these added security measures are necessary, the powers that are now allowable under the RIPA are being taken advantage of by what seem to be power hungry local agencies, acting as bullies, high off the new privileges the law gives them. In one case that the Times article mentions, Jenny Patton, a mother of three children, was investigated for three weeks because she was suspected of lying about her address to get her children into a neighboring school.

In the end, Patton was found to be innocent, but not until her telephone records were scrutinized and she and her children were followed covertly by an undercover agent, all without her knowledge of any of these activities.

I have trouble believing that telephone records and an undercover agent were really necessary in Patton’s case. Instead of first questioning Patton when she was under suspicion, locals wasted their valuable time and money following her around for three weeks. Were three weeks really needed for the officials involved to believe that Patton and her children really lived where she said they did?

In addition to the waste of time and money, the case was an invasion of Patton’s privacy, whether it technically was legal or not. Though the law may allow local officials to use undercover operations, it does not mean that these methods need to be the first techniques used, especially in generally harmless cases such as a mother falsifying her address. It’s one thing to covertly follow a suspected dangerous criminal, but completely another to follow a mother of three.

Local officials and agencies need to use common sense first when deciding how to investigate each and every case, instead of immediately jumping to whichever option makes them feel the most important. People’s privacy should be protected whenever possible and not exploited on an official’s or agency’s every whim.