UK Interception of Communications Commissioner Anthony May has launched an investigation into whether there is “institutional overuse” of the power to access communications data.
The commissioner is appointed by the prime minister to ensure government agencies act in accordance with their legal responsibilities when intercepting communications.
Section 58(4) of the UK Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) requires the commissioner to make an annual report to the prime minister.
In 2013, more than 514,000 authorisations and notices for communications data were approved, excluding urgent oral applications, according to the commissioner’s latest report.
Some 87.7% were made by police forces and law enforcement agencies, while 11.5% were made by intelligence agencies, and 0.3% by local authorities.
The report said some were genuinely urgent, where a life was at risk or in kidnapping cases, but some applications were marked urgent when they were not.
Almost 77% of approved authorisations and notices for communications data were to "prevent or detect crime or prevent disorder" whereas 11.4% was for "national security".
The review will investigate whether police may “automatically” resort to checking an individual’s communications at the outset of an investigation when it is not justified, reports the Telegraph.
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However, the report gives UK intelligence agency GCHQ a clean bill of health despite revelations of mass internet surveillance exposed by US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden.
According to the report, GCHQ acted lawfully and does not engage in “random mass intrusion” of law-abiding citizens.
The Home Office said the number of applications for communications data did not reflect the number of people being investigated as several requests could relate to a single person or investigation.
Theresa May, the home secretary, said the government was “committed to ensuring that law enforcement and intelligence agencies have the powers they need to investigate crime, protect the public and safeguard national security.”
But Emma Carr, deputy director of privacy group Big Brother Watch, said the government needs to address the commissioner’s concerns about overusing powers and the inadequate records kept by public authorities.
“This does not require new legislation and should not wait until after the election,” she said.
Carr added that it was “not good enough” that the report does not include the number of UK citizens affected by these powers, or any meaningful detail on what sort of offences are being investigated.
"This report shows it is possible to be more transparent about how surveillance powers are used without jeopardising security, but there is much more that can and should be done to reassure the public,” she said.