Author Topic: Privacy & function creep: Official monitoring of phones and e-mails hits 439,000  (Read 641 times)

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Todays Times Online

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/crime/article1409395.ece

Quote


Privacy row as checks on phones and e-mails hit 439,000

Home Office reveals figures for first time, Watchdog condemns high number of errors

Michael Evans, Defence Editor and Philip Webster, Political Editor

Almost 450,000 requests were made to monitor people’s telephone calls, e-mails and post by secret agencies and other authorised bodies in just over a year, the spying watchdog said yesterday.

In the first report of its kind from the Interceptions of Communications Commissioner, it was also revealed that nearly 4,000 errors were reported in a 15-month period from 2005 to 2006. While most appeared to concern “lower-level data” such as requests for telephone lists and individual e-mail addresses, 67 were mistakes concerning direct interception of communications.

Sir Swinton Thomas, the report’s author, described the figure as “unacceptably high”.

The disclosures came as Tony Blair admitted that the fingerprints of everyone obtaining identity cards could be checked against nearly a million unsolved crimes.

Human-rights campaigners described the twin revelations yesterday as signs of a “creeping contempt for our personal privacy”.

For its report the spy watchdog monitored 795 bodies, all of which were empowered to seek out communications data. These included MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, the signals intelligence centre in Cheltenham, as well as 52 police forces, 475 local authorities and 108 other organisations such as the Serious Fraud Office and the Financial Services Authority. Between them they made 439,000 requests for communications information over the 15-month period.

The Home Office said that the total number of such requests, which includes information on e-mail addresses and lists of phone numbers, had not been published before. It was unable to say if this represented a huge increase in data collection.

Warrants for serious crime intercepts last three months and warrants for national security cases last for six months.

In response to Sir Swinton’s criticism of the number of errors, the Home Office said that only “intercepts” of communications involved “sensitive” material and required a warrant from a secretary of state. Most of the errors, it said, involved requests for data such as individuals’ e-mail addresses and lists of telephone calls, and did not include intercepting the contents of messages and phone conversations.

The Prime Minister sparked further controversy over ID cards after replying to 28,000 people who had signed an e-petition calling on him to scrap the scheme. He said that the register would help the police to bring those guilty of serious crimes to justice. “They will be able, for example, to compare the fingerprints found at the scene of some 900,000 unsolved crimes against the information held on the register.”

David Davis, the Shadow Home Secretary, said of Mr Blair’s response to the petitioners: “This is a massive move away from the presumption in Britain that a man is innocent until proven guilty. Tony Blair has admitted that the authorities will go on a fishing expedition through the files of innocent people to try to match them up to unsolved crimes.

“This is completely contrary to undertakings given throughout the course of the Bill in the Houses of Parliament and would be a major invasion of privacy. Mr Blair clearly does not realise that fingerprint technology is not infallible. With the vast number of crimes involved it is virtually guaranteed there will be errors and massive miscarriages of justice in a number of cases."

Shami Chakrabarti, director of the Liberty civil rights campaign group, said: “Public confidence in the Government’s respect for our personal privacy has never been lower. There is an urgent need to rebuild that trust. The Prime Minister’s ambitions for ID cards seems to grow as public confidence in the scheme diminishes. This will become a national suspects database.”

On the 450,000 data requests, she said: “There is a creeping contempt for our personal privacy.”

Sir Swinton said that the intelligence and law enforcement agencies had been under extreme pressure, and that crucial evidence had been uncovered from intercepts in the case of the July 7 suicide bombers.

He said it was time to lift a ban on tapping the phones of MPs and peers, which has been in place for the past 40 years. Ministers and MPs had failed to give a good reason why politicians should be immune.

The nonbugging policy for MPs and peers was introduced by the Government of Harold Wilson 40 years ago, and is known as the Wilson Doctrine. Successive prime ministers have upheld the doctrine.

But Sir Swinton rejected the suggestion of allowing intercept material on terrorists and organised criminals to be used in evidence in trials. “If terrorists and criminals, most particularly those high up in the chain of command, know that interception would be used in evidence against them, they will do everything possible to stop providing the material which is so very valuable as intelligence.”

 

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