Interception figures could mask monitoring of millions

Out-Law News | 20 Feb 2007 | 3:49 pm | 2 min. read

British security and law enforcement agencies made 439,000 requests to obtain details of the contacts made by phone and internet users in 2005 and 2006 and could in fact have obtained records on millions of people in this way.

During the same period there were 2,243 warrants for the interception of communications and a single warrant could legitimise the bugging of an entire office. These figures are contained in the annual report of the Interceptions of Communications Commissioner (ICC) that covers a 15-month period in 2005 and 2006

An interception of communications relates to the content of a phone call, letter, email or internet session being accessed by the authorities and, to be lawful, an interception usually requires a warrant to be signed by the Home Secretary.

A request for contact details or communications data, by contrast, does not need a warrant and can reveal information such as the time of a call or email and the number or address called or emailed or in the case of mobile phone user, it can reveal the location of the phone. A warrant is not needed because communications data cannot include the content of a call, email or letter.

However, according to Home Office figures, 90% of requests for communications data seek the disclosure of subscriber information only – such as the identity of someone who uses a particular number.

Each interception warrant is capable of permitting access to the communications from a premises or made by an organisation as well as an individual. Similarly each request for communications data, a different kind of request, can relate to an individual or an organisation. The result is that each request reported by the ICC has the potential to involve an organisation or a premises and the tens or hundreds of individuals who make contact with that organisation or premises.

The law governing interception, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), clearly states that a warrant can cover an entire premises and not just an individual. "An interception warrant must name or describe either one person as the interception subject or a single set of premises as the premises in relation to which the interception to which the warrant relates is to take place," it states.

Similarly, in relation to the less detailed requests for disclosure of communications data, the Act says that authorities can request information on communication by "persons". In legislation 'person' generally refers to an individual or an organisation.

Former Interceptions of Communications Commissioner Sir Swinton Thomas published his final annual report and submitted it to the Prime Minister, Parliament and the Scottish Ministers yesterday. The report covers the period 1st January 2005 to 31st March 2006. After that date Sir Paul Kennedy took over as Commissioner.

The report reveals the scale of communications surveillance in the UK. The 2,243 communications interceptions are the most serious cases, and are likely to have involved organised crime and terrorism. These warrants are signed by Ministers, mainly the Home Secretary, which means that on average, 10 warrants are signed each weekday.

The Commissioner oversees the activities of 795 public bodies, including intelligence services MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, the police, local authorities and regulators. The report indicates that he has six staff to help him in his supervisory role.

The Report also notes the first successful complainant to use the Tribunal system. Since 1985, there has been just under 1,500 complaints against the activities of the national security agencies which have been investigated by the Tribunal.

Responding to the report, the head of civil liberties campaign group Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, has said that the high numbers of people under surveillance indicated that the Government has a "creeping contempt for our personal privacy".

Editor's note, 21/02/2007: This story has been updated since it first appeared.