British police forces are making requests for access to the “who, where and when of any text, email, phone call or web search” carried out by private individuals on average once every two minutes, according to a new report.
The civil liberties and privacy pressure group Big Brother Watch (BBW) says this Communications Data “can paint a vivid and intrusive picture of our lives, including who our friends, family and work colleagues are, where we travel, live, work, socialise and holiday, and the websites we visit online.”
The issue is of particular concern coming as the Conservative government seeks to introduce its Investigatory Powers Bill which it claims is designed to give new powers to police and intelligence agencies “to keep you and your family safe.” It says the information uncovered is used, amongst other things, to combat terrorism, stop paedophiles or help locate missing people. Covering all investigatory powers the bill will be even more wide-ranging than the ‘Snoopers’ Charter’, the 2013 Communications Data Bill that was dropped after opposition from the Liberal Democrats.
The new bill, intended to modernise Communications Data handling, will include additional new measures for bulk interception and extended retention of Communications Data. Its introduction comes at a time when legislators in the US such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) are trying to limit that country’s bulk telephone collection programme.
Between 2012 and 2014, the police made a total of 733,237 requests for Communications Data, of which only 54,164 were refused. Numbers of requests made by individual forces vary – the Metropolitan Police Service tops the charts with 177,287 requests, the Cambridgeshire Constabulary only submitted 2,385. The refusal rate, where requests are rejected, also varies widely, ranging from 0.2 per cent for Warwickshire Police to over 28 per cent for Essex Police, but on average only one in 25 requests is turned down. As BBW notes:
“Despite persistent claims that the police’s access to Communications Data is diminishing, this report shows that the police are continuing to access vast amounts of data on citizens.”
Every request is currently signed off by a Single Point of Contact (SPoC), a specialised person within each police force. The system is therefore only self-policed. BBW calls for a standardised level of approval to be introduced, one that sits above police forces to ensure an independent assessment of the necessity and proportionality of each request. BBW says this independent external approach would benefit investigations where problems later occur relating to disputed requests for Communications Data.
The Metropolitan Police Service declined to comment to Breitbart London, saying it was not a matter for police forces to respond to individually, however National Police Chiefs’ Council Lead for Communications Data, Assistant Chief Constable Richard Berry said:
“Our ability to acquire Communications Data is governed by law and strict codes of practice with built in safeguards. If Communications Data is needed for an investigation, investigators will make an application. This application is assessed by specially trained and accredited, vetted staff within each force. They consider the important principles of necessity, proportionality and collateral intrusion. They can decline applications for Communications Data; this is a sign that the checks and balances in the system are working as they should.
“Many variables will determine how many applications are progressed. There is strict oversight required in law by Interception of Communications Commissioner’s Office (IOCCO), which conducts detailed inspections of forces and is able to deal with trends and local circumstances. We are open to suggestions for improving our processes and respond quickly to recommendations by IOCCO. We will consider the policy recommendations suggested by this study.”