How UK Surveillance is on the Rise

Saturday 20 July 2013

Earlier this week, the UK's official communications interception commissioner published his annual report. The commissioner releases statistics every year that offer an insight into the levels of surveillance being conducted by UK authorities, including police, security and intelligence agencies.

The latest report provides more evidence that the trend in recent years has been towards a general increase in surveillance of communications. In 2012, the report shows, there were a record 570,135 authorisations for police and other agencies to obtain so-called "communications data." This can include subscriber information about suspects' phone and email accounts, as well as call and email records showing who a suspect is phoning/emailing and when. It does not include the actual content of the communication.

Notably, the 570,135 figure is a 15 percent increase on the figure for 2011 and amounts to about an average 1,562 communications data authorisations every day. In addition, the commissioner noted in his report that "979 communications data errors" were made by authorities in cases involving the wrongful collection of data from innocent individuals. The botched surveillance had serious ramifications, with six members of the public "wrongly detained / accused of crimes" as a consequence.

Here's a quick graph I've knocked up showing how, with the exception of a unusual drop in authorisations in 2011, UK authorities have been increasingly obtaining communications data as part of investigations in recent years:

The same trend is reflected in the latest statistics on the interception of communications. Interception is when the authorities obtain a warrant, signed off by the secretary of state, enabling them to secretly eavesdrop on phone calls or read emails and texts. There were 3,372 interception warrants authorised in 2012, which represents a 16 percent increase on the figure for 2011. It is crucial to note that a single interception warrant can encompass large groups of individuals. It is not known exactly how many people were swept up in the 3,372 warrants because these figures are, unfortunately, not published.

Here's a graph that illustrates the steady increase in interceptions since 2008:

While surveillance is on the rise, as the above graphs show, the UK government has been arguing that it does not have enough digital spying capabilities and needs more surveillance powers.

The government's case may have recently been damaged, however, by leaked secret documents, published by the Guardian in June, that revealed how UK spy agency GCHQ was tapping into internet cables and reportedly monitoring some 600 million "telephone events" every day. The exposed extent of GCHQ's spying offered a rare and startling insight into the sweeping scope of surveillance already being conducted by the UK government, and seemed to affirm what the UN's special rapporteur on free expression, Frank La Rue, warned about in an unprecedented report published just weeks before the leaks.

"Technological advancements," La Rue wrote, "mean that the state’s effectiveness in conducting surveillance is no longer limited by scale or duration."

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