It’s official – the snoopers were busy in 2012

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.

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