Increase in comms snooping? You ain't seen nothing yet

Busybody bureaucrats are a sideshow


Analysis Figures from the annual report of Gordon Brown's communications surveillance scrutineer are all over the news today, several weeks after they were released.

The prompt for this belated but blanket coverage, as far as El Reg can tell, was a press release from the Liberal Democrats. In the news drought of mid-August, railing against council snoopers has generated much-needed headlines for the third party.

However, playing to established indignation over the "march of the Town Hall spies" risks overlooking the uncomfortable and concealed truth about state communications surveillance.

The truth is that increased surveillance in the last two years hasn't been driven by local authorities. Rather, GCHQ, MI5 and the police are hoovering up much more data and nobody in government feels the need to say why.

Such agencies of course covet communications data for the instant and parsable intelligence it provides, and for the low regulatory hurdles involved in accessing it. Soon, they plan to gather and exploit a lot more of it.

On July 21, Sir Paul Kennedy, the former High Court judge who is the Interception of Communications Commissioner, reported to the Prime Minister* that authorities mandated by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) had demanded communications data from telephone and internet providers a total of 504,073 times in 2008.

The 2008 total is in fact down slightly on 2007, when authorities accessed information on who contacted whom, when, where and how 519,260 times. Nevertheless, as the Liberal Democrats flagged today, the 2007 total was significantly higher than 2006, giving a net increase in the last two years of 49 per cent.

Sir Paul's vague reports don't offer a detailed breakdown of how many communications data demands are made by each authority, or even each category of authority. "I do not intend to give a breakdown of these requests because I do not think that it would serve any useful purpose," he has written in his two most recent analyses.

He does make an exception for local authorities, whose use of RIPA to access communications data is apt to draw most political heat. His disclosures provide ample proof it is not spies at the Town Hall the Liberal Democrats ought to be concerned about.

In 2008, local authorities made 1,553 demands for communications data (0.3 per cent of the total). In 2007, they made 1,707 demands (again 0.3 per cent of the total).

In 2006, they made 2,259** demands, but the total number that year was just 338,000**. So between 2006 and 2007 the overall level of government surveillance of communications data increased by more than 50 per cent, and it was nothing to do with local bureaucrats, who reined in their snooping.

Here we hit a solidly-built Whitehall stone wall.

Many demands from local authorities are doubtless disproportionate and deserve criticism, but they are at least open to public scrutiny via the Freedom of Information Act. Meanwhile no light is ever cast on routine access to communications data by the intelligence agencies and police. Sir Paul gave no explanation whatsoever for their steep ramp in demand in 2007, maintained in 2008.

Yet despite the wider, tighter nets they cast into the sea of modern communications - largely unfettered by any oversight - the intelligence agencies continue to lobby for greater data retention. The forthcoming Interception Modernisation Programme (IMP) - which envisages communications records keeping on an unprecedented scale and for the first time explicitly on behalf of government - would see endless new horizons of data open up by ubiquitous surveillance of the internet.

No new barriers to accessing that data will be erected, under the Home Office's published plans.

Criticising the current communications data regime, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne today said: "Having the Home Secretary in charge of authorisation is like asking the fox to guard the henhouse."

Perhaps, would it were so. Unfortunately, nobody anywhere near as accountable as the Home Secretary is in charge. Instead, all that's required for intelligence agencies and police to demand communications data is the say so of a senior officer.

Still, at least when the number of requests for communications data leaps again we'll have an idea why: Because IMP is live and because they can. Against that scenario, fuss over a few local bureaucrats investigating fly tipping and dog fouling seems rather trivial. ®

*Not, you'll note, Parliament. The three former High Court judges responsible for scrutiny of snooping - the Interception of Communications Commissioner, the Intelligence Services Commissioner, and the Chief Surveillance Commissioner - all deliver their reports directly to Number 10.

**Estimated annual totals. The 2006 report covered a only a nine-month period, when a total of 253,557 demands were made, of which 1,694 came from local authorities.

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