The Interception of Communications Commissioner has published his annual report highlighting the way that surveillance powers, provided under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, are used.
This report is a marked improvement on the quality and quantity of information that has been presented in the past, highlighting that it is certainly possible to be more transparent about how surveillance powers are used without jeapordising security. Yet there is much more than can and should be done to reassure the public.
For instance, whilst we are told that the total number of approved authorsations and notices for communications data (excluding urgent oral applications) in 2013 was 514,608, the fact remains that this report does not include the number of British citizens affected by these powers, or any meaningful detail on what sort of offences are being investigated. The Commissioner acknowledges this fact within the report, stating that “In my view the unreliability and inadequacy of the statistical requirements is a significant problem which requires attention”.
The report does however break down the authorities who requested the data, highlighting that 87.7% were made by police forces meaning only 11.5% were made by the intelligence agencies. Considering the rhetoric surrounding the use of surveillance powers, it is somewhat of a shock to hear that only 11.4% were made for “national security”, whilst 76.9% were made for to “prevent or detect crime or prevent disorder“.
In light of this, the Commissioner raises his concerns regarding the “significant institutional overuse” of surveillance powers, noting that he believes the 514,608 figure appears “to be a very large number” and “the feel of being too many”. As a result, he has asked his inspectors to take a “critical look” at how the powers are being used, especially in the case of police forces.
Judging from this report it is clear that the Government needs to urgently address the fact that the Commissioner has grounds to believe some powers are institutionally over-used and that the records kept by public authorities are woefully inadequate. This does not require new legislation and should not wait until after the election. If the Government fails to address these serious points, we can already know that next years report will not be a document that the public can feel confident in.