August 11, 2009 | By Danny O'Brien

The UK's Surveillance Society: Half A Million Intercepts of Communications Data in 2008

This week, the United Kingdom's Interception of Communications commissioner, Sir Paul Kennedy, announced his latest statistics for Britain's phone and email surveillance systems, to generally shocked responses by the British Public. In 2008, law enforcement, local authorities and the secret services in that country demanded "communication data" — the "who, how, when and where", but not the actual content of messages — 504,073 times. That's 1,381 times a day; or one inquiry every year for every 78 people in the UK.

Sir Kennedy's report is, in many ways, all the public oversight these half a million requests get.
In the United Kingdom, there is no judicial review of these requests; law enforcement together with the Information Commission regulate their own regime, and are bound only to a government "code of conduct".

Communications data continues to be viewed by lawmakers as non-invasive and therefore not regarded as requiring strict regulation, despite the growing range of personal information that can now be revealed by a communications data intercept request. These orders can reveal lists of websites visited, email headers, name and address lookups, and, perhaps most controversially, the real-time location of a particular mobile telephone.

Such a breadth of information so readily available make these intercepts increasingly tempting for law enforcement; modern technology makes them far easier to capture and process en masse; and with no probable cause or other conditions on obtaining such data, these numbers will keep rising. To guard against the misuse of these invasive powers, we need more than just aggregate statistics presented at the end of the year. Across the world, these frequent invasions of privacy need full judicial oversight, one case at a time.


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