Busy snoopers in 2012 — official

There were more than half a million official requests for “data tracking of individuals” – details of the  timings, originators, recipients, etc., of emails and telephone calls, but in principle not their contents – during 2012, according to the annual report of the Interception of Communications Commissioner, effectively the snooping regulator.  According to the report, “during [2012] public authorities as a whole, submitted 570,135 notices and authorisations for communications data…  the number of requests submitted in 2012 represents an approximate 15% increase on 2011″, an increase attributed by the report mainly to security activity related to the Olympics.

The report also discloses that “the total number of lawful intercept warrants issued in 2012 … was 3,372 … a 16% increase on … 2011.”  These are warrants allowing a long list of public bodies, including the security services and the police, to read the contents, not just the timing, senders’ and recipients’ details, etc., of intercepted emails and telephone calls, each requiring the formal approval of the Home Secretary.

The Commissioner reported that —

During [2012], 979 communications data errors were reported to my office by public  authorities.  …  This figure is higher than the previous year (895). However, as the number of requests has increased by 15% this year, the overall error percentage has actually reduced from 0.18% in 2011 to 0.17% in 2012. I am satisfied that the overall error rate is still low when compared to the number of requests that were made during the course of the reporting year.

So that’s all right, then.  (The Guardian’s account  of the Commissioner’s report says that “nearly 979 errors were made” during interception operations, prompting the question: what figure is best described as “nearly 979”?  Perhaps 978? But it’s clear from the report itself that 979 was the precise figure, so “nearly a thousand” would have been a better approximation.)  Of course the 979 errors comprise only the errors which were detected and reported:  we have no way of knowing how many other errors were committed but never discovered, with potentially dire consequences for private citizens wrongly fingered through their emails, texts or telephone calls.  All we know is that as a result of the known and reported errors, —

Six people have been wrongly detained and falsely accused of crimes in the past year as a result of mistakes made in the official disclosure of confidential data on their internet use to the police and security services

in the words of the same Guardian article.  Actually the Commissioner’s report uses a tiresome slash – “wrongly detained / accused of crimes” – that could mean either ‘and’ or ‘or’. Either way it’s remarkable that there were only six known victims of nearly a thousand known errors.

Out of the 3,372 intercept warrants issued in 2012, i.e. those allowing the contents as well as the communications data to be accessed by a public body, 55 “errors / breaches” (that ambiguous slash again)  were reported to the Commissioner by public authorities, representing a 30% increase on the 42 errors reported in 2011.  Those 55 errors over intercepts sound relatively few only by comparison with the 979 errors committed in connection with communications data operations.  Again, 55 can only be the number of errors that were spotted and reported:  heaven knows how many others were committed and never discovered, with potentially catastrophic consequences for innocent victims.

All these activities are authorised by the infamous ” Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) 2000“.  According to Wikipedia,

in September 2003 Home Secretary David Blunkett announced additions to the list of those entitled to access certain types of communications data collected under RIPA in what civil rights and privacy campaigners dubbed a ‘snoopers’ charter’. Following a public consultation and Parliamentary debate, however, Parliament approved the new additions in December 2003, April 2005, July 2006 and February 2010. 

New Labour was responsible for this monstrous assault on our right to the protection of our private communications from snooping by the state.  Ed Miliband’s One Nation Labour should promise now to repeal it at the first available opportunity, and to replace it by a new law reducing to a low minimum (1) the scope of these snooping powers, (2) the number of public bodies permitted to exercise them, and (3) the room left in the prescribed procedures for errors.  This would require Mr Miliband to overrule the objections that would no doubt be noisily voiced by the succession of New Labour former home secretaries anxious to protect their places in history.  It’s surely time for these old warriors to retire gracefully from the field and to maintain a dignified silence while the murkier elements in their legacy are cleaned up by a (small n) new and more liberal Labour government in the future.


2 Responses

  1. Timothy Weakley says:

     “During [2012] public authorities as a whole, submitted 570,135 notices and authorisations for communications data” – presumably for approval to the Interception of Communications Commissioner – but “the total number of lawful intercept warrants issued in 2012 … was 3,372″.  This appears to leave 566,763 requests which were considered too frivolous, trivial, paranoid, etc., even by the standards of the security services.  Or am I missing something?  Moreover, we appear to have 0.17% false positives.  What I wonder – we shall never know – was the fraction of false negatives – the villains who should have been investigated and weren’t?

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Tim. As I understand it (or very possibly misunderstand it), intercept warrants are quite different from the grant of access to ‘communications data’, which can be authorised by a senior official in the relevant organisation; intercept warrants require the signature of the home secretary. Permission to get a targeted individual’s ommunications data doesn’t mean permission to access the contents of the relevant communications; whereas intercept warrants do allow access to contents as well as to the communications data. The functions of the Interception of Communications Commissioner don’t include granting or withholding warrants or communications data permissions: he monitors the functioning of the system to check whether everyone is following proper procedures. All this is set out very fully indeed in the (previous) Commissioner’s report for 2012 — see link to it in my post.
    If I have got it all wrong, I hope someone will put me right!

  2. I was aware, since Snowden’s revelations, that the UK under RIPA was very bad—indeed worse in terms of legal control – than anything in the US under the NSA. It is truly appalling – not that Australia is ‘lily white’ as it is a member of ‘Five Eyes’. Blair Labour had some second-raters; Blunkett comes to mind. But, of course, it all derives from an over-reaction to the terrorist threat. Security and Intelligence bodies have become relatively uncontrolled. ASIO [Ausralian Security Intelligence Organization] has  extremely wide powers of intelligence gathering and detention.
    Anyway I believe Snowden’s revelations have been entirely helpful.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, John.  A sobering aspect of all this is that all the facts and (massive) figures in my post are in the public domain, and don’t depend at all on the Snowden revelations about the implications of collaboration between the UK’s GCHQ and the Americans’ NSA.  All the half-million plus applications for access to private citizens’ communications data and the three thousand plus warrants giving state organs access to the contents of individuals’ emails and telephone calls  have been happening purely internally, as far as we know, and independently of collaboration with the Americans (and Australians!).  

    I think we have to recognise that the ability to intercept emails, telephone calls, postal mail, etc., and to examine communications data, is an indispensable tool in the detection and prevention of both terrorism and other serious crime.  But public opinion seems to be inexplicably unconcerned about the vast scale on which official bodies are accessing our communications data and (on a smaller scale) the contents of our communications.  There should also be much more concern about the unacceptably large number of ‘errors’ being committed in the course of these activities.  None of these statistics is being kept secret (which is reassuring, up to a point):  but there’s no obvious pressure on government to cut it down radically, to reduce the number of bodies entitled under RIPA to access this kind of information, or to reduce the scope for errors.  Civil liberties champions such as Liberty are aware of the problem and issue outraged statements about the figures when they are published, but the general public seem to be indifferent to it all.