Britain may have more CCTV cameras per head than anywhere else in the world but when it comes to electronic surveillance the country is way behind Italy, the Netherlands and even Sweden.
Official figures have revealed UK law enforcement agencies and other government bodies made 439,000 requests to monitor telephones and email addresses in a 15 month period between 2005 and 2006, leading to comments that Britain led the world in spying on its citizens.
A report (PDF) from the Interception of Communications Commissioner, the UK surveillance watchdog, reports that 4,000 "errors" were made over the report period. Most concerned less serious slip-ups involving requests to obtain lists of telephone calls and individual email addresses, but 67 involved errors that led to the direct interception of communications.
The UK figures might sound high but are dwarfed by interception statistics from other countries. According to figures from German scientific think-tank the Max Planck Society, Italy leads the world with 76 intercepts per 100,000 head of population, shortly ahead of the Netherlands (62), and with third-placed Sweden some way back (33). Germany comes in fourth with 23.5 intercepts per 100,000 head of population with England and Wales trailing on six intercepts per head of population.
Scott Coleman, director of marketing for lawful intercept at electronic surveillance firm SS8 Networks, said the Max Planck data reflected its own perception of the marketplace. "There's nothing weird or out of place. It supports our perception that Italy has more interception going on than any other country and reflects what we think is going on in the US and UK. We think the numbers are accurate," he told El Reg.
The Netherlands came up with a standard for IP interception and championed a framework for electronic surveillance when it held the EU presidency in 2004, so it can be seen as an evangelist for technology its ready to apply on its own populace. Corruption inquiries are perceived as the reason why Italy tops the global wiretap league.
Electronic surveillance levels in US are roughly on par with those of the UK. Based on a Department of Justice intercept report to Congress, 1.2m requests to tap telephones and email addresses were made in 2005, the last year for which figures are available. Most involved requests to obtain historic lists of telephone calls with only 48,000 requests looking for real-time call data and 2,600 involving the interception of communications.
These official figures exclude so-called warrantless wiretaps that were approved as part of the domestic arm of the Bush Adminsrations War on Terror and also exclude the work of the National Security Agency, the US's secret signals intelligence agency.
SS8 Networks makes middleware that helps service providers manage the collection of data from wiretaps across multiple voice and data connections. The firm's Xcipio products allow carriers to meet regulatory requirements for supporting law enforcement agencies.
Under the controversial Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act US broadband and VoIP providers face a 14 May compliance deadline for setting up systems that allow them to process wiretapping requests from law enforcement agencies. Despite this looming deadline, standards bodies are yet to come up with a finalised standard for how the technology ought to be applied, Coleman reports. "The legislation has led to some increase as a result of sales to broadband providers but the diversity of communication protocols across different network types is more important to our business," he added. ®