A five-member panel of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal last week issued its decision in Re: a Complaint of Surveillance (case no: IPT/A1/2013). The decision was on a preliminary point arising from this sort of factual scenario: suppose you voluntarily participate in an interview with policing/investigatory authorities but, unbeknownst to you, the investigators use a device to record that interview? Would this act of recording constitute ‘surveillance’ for the purposes of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA), such that it requires authorisation (assuming it to be ‘directed’) was required? Would it engage your rights under Article 8 ECHR?
There are arguments both ways. As the IPT observed, “the wording in Part II [of RIPA] presents some difficulties for the reasonable reader”. The official guidance publications answer the above questions differently: the Office of the Surveillance Commissioners answers ‘yes’, but the Home Office answers ‘no’.
The IPT has agreed with the Home Office’s interpretation.
By s. 48(2) RIPA, Parliament has chosen not to define ‘surveillance’ as such, but to deem that surveillance shall be construed so as to include certain activities. Those deeming examples extend or amplify the ordinary meaning of ‘surveillance’, the essence of which is that person who is subject to surveillance is intended to remain unaware of those means and does not engage with the person secretly gathering the intelligence. In the IPT’s view, “the notion of a ‘covert interview’ requiring RIPA authorisation is one that is difficult to grasp. An interview is by its very nature an overt intelligence gathering operation in which the interviewee actively participates, even if only to the extent of refusing to answer questions”. Such interviews cannot constitute ‘surveillance’ and Article 8 rights are not engaged here.
It follows that the recording of the interview is not observing or listening to “in the course of surveillance” within the meaning of s. 48(2)(b) of RIPA, and no authorisation is required. The making of the recording only involves the recording process itself. It does not involve a separate act of “observing or listening to” the person being interviewed.
The IPT expressly rejected the contention that, regardless of the purpose, nature or circumstances of the intelligence-gathering activities in question, every act of “observing or listening to persons”, their conversations or communications is automatically treated as surveillance.
Robin Hopkins (@hopkinsrobin)