Tuesday, February 20, 2007

UK reveals record number of telephone, email, and post monitoring

The United Kingdom is checking on its citizens' telephone conversations, email exchanges, and posted letters like never before (and — as far as I know — like no other country democracy). A report in todays The Times reveals that 439,000 requests were made by secret agencies and other authorised bodies to monitor people’s telephone calls, e-mails and post in a 15-month period from 2005 to 2006.

The newspaper article draws on the report of the "Interceptions of Communications Commissioner" — a somewhat Orwellian sounding title for an office about which I had never heard before and for which a quick google throws up nothing except two references in debates at the House of Lords many years ago. More detailed investigation, however, reveals that the person in question is Sir Swinton Thomas, a former High Court Judge, who has been said Commissioner since April 2000, and that his office is created by Section 57(1) of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.

The report (apparently his first in seven years in office) covers no less than 795 bodies that are empowered to seek out communications data. Besides the usual suspects such as MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, the signals intelligence centre in Cheltenham, they also include 52 police forces, 475 local authorities and 108 other organisations such as the Serious Fraud Office and the Financial Services Authority. The report also reveals that 4,000 errors were reported, of which 67 were mistakes concerning direct interception of communications. Sir Swinton Thomas is quoted by The Times as describing that figure as “unacceptably high”.

This is where I disagree. I think that 67 mistakes in 439,000 is as good a ratio as you can get — some 0.016 per cent. It is not 67 that is unacceptably high; it is 439,000!

Update: The present Interception of Communications Commissioner is Sir Paul Kennedy, who was appointed in 2006 for three years, writes Spyblog (see also here). So it was his predecessor who wrote the report and not the present Commissioner; I am sure there is a reason for this, even if I can't think of one right now…

Further Update: Spyblog points out that the date of the report (available here) is 19 December 2006 and speculates that the original report may have been toned down which would account for its delayed publication. The letter accompanying the report also makes clear that this is the 6th Annual Report, although The Times in the article referenced above calls it "the first report of its kind". As I have not had a chance to go hunting for the other reports, I cannot solve the contradiction between these two claims.

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At 20/2/07 20:08, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is actually Rt. Hon. Sor Swinton Thomas's sixth "annual" Report under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. He previously reported under the Interception of Communications Act.

The newly appointed Interception of Communications Commissioner Rt. Hon. Sir Paul Kennedy took over in April 2006.

His 2004 report was submitted to Tony Blair on 12th July 2005, and published on 3rd November 2005

His 2005-2006 report (.pdf) was submitted to Tony Blair on 19th December 2006, and published on 19th February 2007, but covers 1 January 2005 to 31 March 2006.

Section 58 of RIPA says:


(4) As soon as practicable after the end of each calendar year, the Interception of Communications Commissioner shall make a report to the Prime Minister with respect to the carrying out of that Commissioner's functions.


(6) The Prime Minister shall lay before each House of Parliament a copy of every annual report made by the Interception of Communications Commissioner under subsection (4), together with a statement as to whether any matter has been excluded from that copy in pursuance of subsection (7).

Surely the way in which "calendar year" and "annual report" have mutated into "15 month report" published in the second calendar year cannot be what Parliament intended ?

Technically, Tony Blair could just have published the report on the 20th December 2006, with a Prime Ministerial Written Statement that day, when Parliament broke up for the Christmas and New Year recess.

Perhaps Rt. Hon. Sir Swinton Thomas was "working to rule" in protest ?

This illustrates how weak the alleged public scrutiny and oversight mechanism of an Annual Report (which is censored of any "sensitive" details) to the Prime Minister or other Minister really is.

This does not bode well for the similar Annual Report of the Identity Scheme Commissioner to the Home Secretary, which can also be similarly censored.

At 20/2/07 20:09, Anonymous Watching Them, Watching Us said...

That previous comment was not meant to be Anonymous !

At 22/2/07 17:33, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Most of the Interception of Communications Commissioner's Annual reports and the even less informative Intelligence Services Commissioner reports can be found via the Investigatory Powers Tribunal reports page

The link to the first ICC Report for 2000 seems to have disappeared, but it is still online at


The Times, and some other mainstream media and bloggers have chosen to misleadingly portray

"the overall number of requests for communications data which totalled 439,054"

as if that meant the number telephone taps or email interceptions.

This figure refers to the number of Requests for Communications Traffic Data. which could be just a subscriber name and address for a
phone number in an advert, requested by a Local Authority Trading Standards department investigating dodgy second hand car dealers, or it could be itemised phone bills, or email server logfiles, or mobile phone transmitter base station cell id location data used to track a murder suspect or victim. Such requests can be made by a middle ranking Police officer e.g. a Superintendent or equivalent in the nearly 800 public authorities or agencies mentioned in the Report.

This last report by Rt. Hon. Sir Swinton Thomas is the "first of its kind" only in the sense that previous reports did not report this Commuminaction Traffic Data figure, and the alleged number of errors, at all.

This Communications Traffic Data is what the European Union Directive on mandatory Data Retention for 450 million EU mostly innocent citizens is all about.

The actual number of telephone and email taps or email interceptions (and postal letter interceptions) etc. remains shrouded in mystery.

The figures for interception warrants, which are mostly signed by the Home Secretary (about 2200), are deliberately vague, since they exclude Northern Ireland, and include certifcated warrants, as used to authorise, say, GCHQ, for long running, large scale investigations e.g. tapping all the internet traffic across the Atlantic to or from the USA, which could, in theory be done under a single certificate.


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