UK: ‘Snoop’ power is used 1,400 times a day to intercept private data

Britain has “sleepwalked into a surveillance society”, it was claimed last night after figures disclosed that public bodies had obtained access to private telephone and e-mail records about 1,400 times a day.

Council, police and other organisations made more than half a million requests for confidential communications data last year.

The statistics constitute a 44 per cent rise in requests over the past two years.

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which was created to help the authorities to fight the threat of terrorism, gives organisations such as local councils, the police and intelligence agencies the power to request access to confidential communications data, including lists of telephone numbers dialled and e-mail addresses to which messages have been sent.

The Act does not allow authorities to have access to the content of the messages or calls.

Councils have been accused of using the powers for matters, such as spying on people littering and dog fouling.

The figures were compiled by Sir Paul Kennedy, the Interception of Communications Commissioner, who reviews requests made under the Act.

Sir Paul found that last year a total of 504,073 requests to monitor communications “traffic” were made. The vast majority were by the police and security services but local councils made more than 1,500 requests for communications data, including lists of telephone numbers dialled by suspects.

Last year the Government issued guidelines on the use of the powers, in a move to prevent their misuse. Yet the 2008 figure is only slightly down on the figure for 2007 of 519,260.

Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: “The sheer numbers are daunting. It cannot be a justified response to the problems we face in this country that the state is spying on half a million people a year.

“We have sleepwalked into a surveillance state. Having the Home Secretary in charge of authorisation is like asking the fox to guard the henhouse.

“It beggars belief that it is necessary to spy on one in every 78 adults.

“The fact that numbers are up a half on two years ago makes a mockery of the Government’s supposed crackdown.”

Sir Paul defended councils over their use of the Act, saying: “It is evident that good use is being made of communications data to investigate the types of offences that cause harm to the public. Local authorities could often make more use of this powerful tool to investigate crimes.”

A Home Office spokesman said: “It’s vital that we strike the right balance between individual privacy and collective security and that is why the Home Office is clear these powers should only be used when they are proportionate.”

August 10, 2009

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