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Snoops 'n' snitches auditor IPCO gets up and running

Broken the law while spying? Someone will write to you, later

The latest agency that audits state spying in the UK, the Investigatory Powers Commission (IPCO), formally started operating today.

IPCO is the latest incarnation of the public sector snooping regulator, the body previously having been called the Interception of Communications Commissioner’s Office (IOCCO).

In plain English, IPCO is supposed to ensure that UK state spying, covering everything from covert police operations to GCHQ's bulk cable-tapping and decryption exercises, is carried out in accordance with the UK's notably fast and loose laws on this sort of thing.

IPCO has not yet assumed its full range of duties. Staffed by around 70 people, including 15 judicial commissioners comprised of current and retired senior judges, it will go through records of public sector surveillance operations at scheduled intervals, as well as having the power to carry out immediate inspections.

The first Investigatory Powers Commissioner, the Right Honourable Lord Justice Fulford, PC, QC, was appointed in March this year, as we reported at the time.

The new and improved IPCO now audits the snooping activities of MI5, MI6, GCHQ, the National Crime Agency, police forces, HMRC, local councils, and other such popular public bodies. Its statutory duties are set out at section 229 of the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, the so-called Snoopers’ Charter. Notable in that section are sub-sections (6) and (7), which prohibit the judicial commissioners who do IPCO’s day-to-day work from acting in a way that Fulford, who is appointed by the Prime Minister, “considers to be contrary to the public interest”, or from “jeopardising the success of an intelligence or security or law enforcement operation”.

“From today, and for the first time, investigatory powers will be overseen by a single body applying a consistent, rigorous and independent inspection regime across public authorities. This is an important milestone as we start to implement the new oversight powers set out in the Investigatory Powers Act,” said Lord Justice Fulford in a canned quote.

In the future, IPCO will oversee the judicial "double lock" process on authorisations for spying. IPCO judicial commissioners will countersign warrants issued by politicians that permit spies to go about their business, though in theory they will have the power to refuse to do so. At present these warrants are signed by politicians alone.

As an oversight mechanism, IPCO’s remit is deliberately very narrow. Its powers are effectively limited to pointing out criminal behaviour by public sector snoopers long after the event, and even then it has little practical ability to stop law-breaking by snoopers and spies. Though the Commissioner can issue “monetary penalty notices” (fines, in plain English) of up to £50,000, it would be surprising to see this power ever being exercised, given that IPCO is bound by law not to “unduly impede the operational effectiveness” of public sector snoopers.

A non-exhaustive list of the types of public sector bodies audited by IPCO can be found here. In addition to the obvious ones, it includes fire and ambulance services, the Gambling Commission, Ofcom, the NHS Business Services Authority and the Food Standards Agency. ®

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