As published in The Telegraph:
Inquiry into phone and email snoopers;
Sir Anthony May, the Interception of Communications Commissioner, says number of requests last year for access to people’s private data – around 500,000 – was “too large”
Britain’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies are facing an inquiry from Whitehall’s snooping watchdog into whether they are collecting too many private telephone and internet records, The Telegraph can disclose.
The investigation by Sir Anthony May, the Interception of Communications Commissioner, will start this year and comes after he told MPs he was worried that the security services were making too many requests for access to people’s private data.
In evidence to the Home Affairs select committee, Sir Anthony suggested that the number of requests last year – around 500,000 – was “too large”.
Whitehall sources said that his staff were now starting work on a review to determine whether Britain’s intelligence agencies and police were making a “proportionate” number of applications for access to phone and internet records.
He has a team of eight full-time inspectors with powers to interrogate systems in MI5 and MI6, and interview intelligence officers, as well as the police, as part of a regular inspection programme.
The findings of the review will be published in Sir Anthony’s annual report to the Prime Minister on Whitehall’s use of intercept powers next year.
The probe comes as the Government reacts to growing concern about the gathering of large amounts of data by GCHQ, the Government’s listening post in Cheltenham, and America’s National Security Agency.
In 2012, there were 570,000 requests to acquire communication data. The vast majority of these came from law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
Just 5,000 were from groups like local authorities, the Environment Agency and the Financial Conduct Authority which are allowed to snoop on people using powers under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa). Under the Act, they can ask for confidential communications data, including telephone numbers dialled and email addresses to which messages have been sent, but not their contents.
Sir Anthony’s role is to review how public authorities – including councils, police and the intelligence agencies – request this confidential information.
In evidence to the Home Affairs select committee last week, Sir Anthony disclosed that the number of requests in 2013 had fallen slightly to around 500,000.
No breakdown of how many requests came from MI5 or MI6 or the police is currently available, although Sir Anthony is understood to be considering publishing those details next year.
The requests are limited to basic details such who is the registered owner of a landline or mobile number, who they have been phoning and where they were when the calls were made.
Asked if he felt that communications data provided key evidence, for the prosecution and defence, in court cases, Sir Anthony said: “There is no doubt about that at all. I just have one, as it were, gloss on that-it is not a gloss; it is unequivocal: 570,000 is a very large number.
“The equivalent number for this year looks like it is going to be rather less than that, but it will still be above 500,000.
“I just have a feeling that it is not only very large but, possibly, overall too large. The difficulty is this – and I am really quite keen on this.
“You can look at individual applications over and over again, asking the question, ‘Are they necessary for a statutory purpose? Are they proportionate? Could this be achieved by other reasonable, less intrusive means, and what is the intrusion that is going on?’ You can get an answer: yes, yes and yes.”
Whitehall sources said the number of actual pieces of information gathered by the agencies could be a lot higher because each request could cover several numbers.
David Davis, the former shadow home secretary who quit the Tory frontbench to fight campaigns on civil liberties issues, welcomed news of the review.
He said: “It is a very good sign that the Commissioner is taking a more clinical view of the sheer size of the surveillance than his predecessor.
“It is his job to assure the balance between privacy and security but he is recognising that gathering vast quantities of data can undermine privacy and public confidence.
“The ‘never mind the quality feel the width’ approach to data surveillance has contributed to a failure to stop terrorism in the past.
“The commissioner’s advice will not only make the surveillance more acceptable it will make it more effective.”
Shami Chakrabarti, director of civil liberties group Liberty, said: “The spooks’ hunger for our personal information knows no bounds.
“Another investigation is all well and good but root-and-branch reform of hopelessly outdated surveillance legislation is years overdue. Of course ‘securocrats’ will take advantage of laws made for the fax generation.”
Nick Pickles, director of Big Brother Watch, added: “We need a fundamental review of how laws written for copper telephone cables are being used to trawl millions of innocent people’s communications.
“Far more transparency is possible without in any way compromising security. The Commissioner shouldn’t be waiting for a year to publish statistics he already has and if he doesn’t have them then he should name and shame the organisations trying to hide how often they are accessing details of our private communications.”
Sir Anthony, a former Appeal Court judge, replaced Sir Paul Kennedy as Interception of Communications Commissioner in January 2013.
A spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers said: “The Office of Surveillance Commissioners provides for the effective and efficient oversight of covert surveillance by public authorities and inspects those public bodies who do so. The police work with the OSC to ensure that police activity is compliant with guidance.”