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Are police forces overusing data gathering powers?

US whistleblower, Edward Snowden, accused UK intelligence agency GCHQ of breaking data protections laws and claimed that GCHQ and the US National Security Agency regularly conducted unwarranted 'mass surveillance' operations. In response, Sir Anthony May launched a review to establish whether there is excessive monitoring of communications by authorities and published the results in his first annual report in his new role as Interception of Communications Commissioner.

The report focused on two areas of concern - interception (when a warrant is issued to enable the full content of someone's communications to be listened into) and communications data (where a request is made for confidential data, including telephone numbers dialled and email addresses to which messages have been sent). In 2013, there were 2,760 warrants for interception and 514,608 requests for communications data, the majority of which came from police forces.

The report showed that interception was carried out by nine different agencies and worryingly, resulted in 57 errors. Even more worryingly, inspectors found that errors were made in 970 of the applications for communications data - some even included requests to monitor the wrong email address or phone number and five of those mistakes had "very serious consequences".

Concerns were also raised over whether these powers were being used for purposes not originally intended by the law. However, the report showed that less than 0.5% of requests were for purposes other than the prevention and detection of crime or disorder, national security or preventing death or injury and the Home Office has reiterated that the number of applications did not equate to the number of people that were actually subject to it.

Conclusion

Britain's spy agencies do not carry out "random mass intrusions" of law abiding citizens and agencies do act lawfully, the surveillance watchdog concluded as he cleared GCHQ of any wrongdoing. He did acknowledge that there were genuine concerns that need to be addressed, but that the current legal framework - the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 ("RIPA") - was broadly fit for purpose and being used correctly.

The report has however been criticised for not addressing many of Snowden's revelations. Rachel Robinson, policy director of Liberty, described May's failure to find some of the surveillance programmes described by Snowden as anything less than intrusive, "baffling". May himself admitted that RIPA is a difficult statute to understand and said that it is hard to know how many people are actually affected by communications data requests.

The debate over national security and personal privacy will no doubt continue, but Britain's spy agencies will continue to work in the same way, having been given a clean bill of health by Sir Anthony. In contrast, the US response to Snowden's allegations has been to make changes and propose new legislation. Should Britain be considering reforming its laws to keep in line with ever changing technology and the US, instead of accepting May's report as conclusive evidence that the current use of data gathering powers is acceptable?

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