UK spy overseer: Snooper's Charter cockups are still getting innocents arrested

IPCO report also lets us recognise Britain's Creepiest Council 2017

Police employees who make typos in warrants to use Snooper’s Charter spy powers are still getting innocent people arrested, the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s delayed annual report has revealed.

Of the 18 “error investigations” carried out by the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office (IPCO) into the misuse of legal snooping powers by State agencies, the vast majority of wrongful police raids and arrests came about because police workers transposed vital data (such as dates, times or IP addresses) or even made careless typos when writing out applications for search warrants.

These blunders led to innocent people being arrested and accused by police of the most vile crimes – people such as Nigel Lang, whose life was blighted for two years after a typo led a police raid, wholly wrongly, to his home on suspicion that he was a paedophile.

Lang’s case was mentioned in an anonymised form in IPCO’s delayed 2017 report [PDF] which was laid before Parliament yesterday. Hertfordshire Police later confessed they added a digit to an IP address by mistake, leading them to wrongly identify Lang and send South Yorkshire Police, his local force, after him. Herts paid £60,000 in compensation once Lang identified who was responsible.

Generally, everything’s OK

As well as keeping an eye on police uses of the Snooper’s Charter (perhaps better known nowadays as the Investigatory Powers Act), IPCO also oversees MI5, MI6, local councils, fire and ambulance services, and a whole host of other State bodies who have the legal right to spy on your phonecalls and internet use.

Encouragingly, Lord Justice Adrian Fulford, the Investigatory Powers Commissioner, found that “many local authorities are using their directed surveillance powers less frequently than a decade ago” and that most fire brigades and ambulance services weren’t doing any snooping at all.

However, Hammersmith Council wins the inglorious title of “Britain’s Creepiest Council” from The Register after applying to get its greasy fingers on an average of 79 pieces of communications data about local residents it decided to target.

While IPCO criticised GCHQ for not always setting out “the scale of the planned surveillance sufficiently and therefore the likely level of intrusion” in its surveillance warrants, and also raised questions about the use of “parties acting on GCHQ’s behalf” (ie, contractors doing work for the agency), it praised the agency for later cleaning up its act and “providing a succinct summary of the relevant considerations”.

MI5, on the other hand, had a tendency to use “boilerplate text in applications”, according to IPCO, rather than making each application for surveillance on its merits.

Government hackers and bug-planters broke the law 83 times during 2017-18 while carrying out “property interference”, IPCO found.

In light of recent concern about police deploying uncontrolled facial recognition technology, IPCO offered little comfort, however, with Lord Justice Fulford writing: “There has been some recent controversy regarding the use of facial software by police forces. I oversee any conduct that requires surveillance authorisation, but neither Parliament nor the courts have yet established a framework against which to judge this particular activity.”

On the whole, most of the cases where surveillance had not complied with the law and IPSO itself had investigated were caused by human error – though some were most definitely not.

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