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Most of more than 733,000 police communications data requests approved

Big Brother Watch is calling for a curb on the scale of police access to communications data and greater transparency in the use of this data

An average of 96% of 733,237 UK police requests to access communications data were approved in the past three years, according to a report by civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch

That is the equivalent of one request every two minutes for the who, where, when of any text, email, phone call or web search.

Big Brother Watch is calling for a curb on the scale of police access to communications data and greater transparency in the use of this data as the government plans to expand surveillance powers.

The campaign group said while the Queen’s Speech made it clear that the government will forge ahead with legislation to enable communications data to be easily accessible to the police and intelligence agencies, the report shows disparity between police forces on how many requests are internally rejected and approved. 

For instance, Police Scotland made less than half the number of requests (62,075) made by the Metropolitan Police (177,287), yet had only 1.7% refused while the Metropolitan Police had 18% refused. 

West Midlands Police made the second-highest number of requests (99,444), yet had only 1.35% refused, while Essex Police, which made the seventh-highest number of requests (19,541), had 28% were refused.

“If police forces persist with calls for greater access to our communications, procedures will need to be standardised, transparency about the process published and independent judicial approval brought in as part of the authorisation procedure to ensure that requests for communications data are always necessary and proportionate,” Big Brother Watch said in a statement.

Read more about the draft communications bill

In light of the findings of the report, the campaign group has made five recommendations:

  1. Police forces should be required to publish transparency reports detailing how requests are approved, the number of individuals affected and the type of crime that communications data is used for. 
  2. Proof that data of more than six months old is regularly used to establish a proportionate approach to data retention.
  3. A clear, standardised procedure for the access of communications data, which all police forces, telecommunications and internet service providers must adhere to.
  4. Judicial approval should be the final step in any request for communications data.
  5. New definitions for communications data should be adopted.

Big Brother Watch said that if the government adopts these recommendations, the general public will be better informed about how their communications can be obtained, analysed and used. It will also provide the much-needed clarity on how police and other organisations work with the technology companies to access this information.

“Modern policing and the use of technology in investigating crime should be more transparent,” said Big Brother Watch chief executive Renate Samson.

“We are repeatedly told that communications data plays a significant role in modern policing, yet the report’s findings pose serious questions about the internal approval process which differs from force to force, and with police forces making more than 730,000 requests for communications data in the past three years, political mutterings of diminishing access to our communications are clearly overstated,” she said.

Samson said if greater access to communications data is to be granted by the planned Investigatory Powers Bill, clearer internal procedures need to be established, and increased transparency and independent judicial approval need to be introduced as standard.

“Until these safeguards exist, the public will have little confidence that the powers to access their communications are being used only when it is truly necessary and proportionate,” she said.

The founder and inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, also recently called for government accountability in the light of the planned Investigatory Powers Bill.

He expressed concerns that the new legislation will expand the controversial electronic communications surveillance powers set out in the shelved Data Communications Bill.

The earlier bill, dubbed the “snoopers’ charter”, required internet and other service providers to retain records of all communications for 12 months, including emails, web phone calls and use of social media.

The Conservative Party was forced to abandon the controversial bill in 2013 in the face of opposition from its Liberal Democrat coalition partner, but indicated it would revisit legislation to monitor electronic communications just hours after winning a majority in the 2015 general election.

At the opening of the Southbank Centre’s Web We Want Festival on 30 May 2015, Berners-Lee said the discussion in the Queen’s Speech of increased monitoring powers should be regarded as a “red flag”, reports The Guardian.

“This discussion is a global one, it’s a big one, it’s something that people are very engaged with, they think it’s very important, and they’re right, because it is very important for democracy and it’s very important for business," he said.

“So this sort of debate is something that should be allowed to happen around legislation. It’s really important that legislation is left out for a seriously long comment period, and not simply rushed through into law.”

Read more on Privacy and data protection

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