Britain most prolific telephone tappers

Britain’s police, Customs and Secret Services are the most prolific telephone-tappers in the European Union, according to an article in The Times last week:
Britain’s spies keep phone taps out of court

The irony is that this type of surveillance cannot be used in a British court. So exactly why are we the most spied upon people in Europe? For a government of prolific telephone tappers, there are startlingly few controls monitoring the legitimacy of this common practice, as I make clear in my book.

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) is the ‘wiretapping’ law that regulates communications interception and other types of intrusive surveillance. True, there are three commissioners whose purpose is to monitor the propriety of surveillance, but Privacy International has dubbed the three commissioners ‘The Three Blind Mice’ for their systemic failure to issue sanctions against the police or security services despite numerous findings that the wrong telephone numbers are often tapped and authorisations are issued on skimpy evidence.

The Commissioners also refuse to release the number of national security intercepts authorised, claiming that to do so would endanger national security, even though the United States, Canada and New Zealand make this information publicly available.

Secondary legislation passed in 2003 expanded the number of government bodies that can access private telephone records, mail and internet activity, so it now includes not only the police, the intelligence services, Customs and Excise and the Inland Revenue, but also a raft of other organisations such as local government. There is concern that some organisations lack the necessary checks and audits to prevent secret material being misused against a person. During parliamentary debate, Baroness Blatch argued that ‘the issue of oversight of the system is particularly crucial, and the Interception Commissioner has been particularly silent on his methods of oversight’ (House of Lords, 13 Nov 2003, column 1538).

If the public are to have confidence that organisations are using their powers properly, there should be a system in place to objectively scrutinise how they conduct surveillance. RIPA created several tribunals to do this. However, these tribunals are not covered by the freedom of information act.

The Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act (ATCS) 2001 also requires communications providers to keep records of their users’ activities for national security purposes. Again, the oversight of these powers is far below what is required to ensure public confidence that they are not being abused.

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One Response to “Britain most prolific telephone tappers”

  1. John Maizels says:

    I am trying to see MI5 files relating to my late father and my mother from 1940s onwards. MI5 write to say they are not covered by FOI act. The files probably relate mainly to phone tapping and observance. Would the National Archives have any such documents? Is there a way of getting MI5 to release them? They are completely harmless and meaningless to anyone now.
    Thank you for any help you may be able to give.

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