The communities secretary, Eric Pickles, has sharply criticised the BBC and other public bodies for trying to hide their use of covert surveillance powers without any judicial oversight or transparency.
Responding to research by the campaign group Big Brother Watch, Pickles said it was “simply unacceptable” for publicly funded bodies including the BBC, Ofsted and Royal Mail to use powers in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) to spy on the public and then try to avoid any accountability.
The research shows that 345 local authorities across Britain have carried out a total of 9,607 covert surveillance operations over the past three years, equating to nearly nine a day using powers intended to combat serious crime and terrorism.
The Big Brother Watch report says the powers have been used to tackle problems such as TV licence evasion, trading standards offences, benefit fraud and flytipping, as well as less serious issues.
It cites 26 councils that have used Ripa powers to spy on dog owners suspected of not clearing up their pet’s mess, and seven that have mounted surveillance operations to test whether the smoking ban was being breached.
Kent county council is the most enthusiastic in its use of Ripa investigations, according to the research, mounting 315 operations in the past three years.
Legislation introduced by the coalition government will mean that from November local authorities will have to get the approval of a magistrate to use their Ripa powers before mounting a covert surveillance operation.