Statewatch News Online: UK: Understanding surveillance statistics (2)

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Understanding surveillance statistics  
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- Since 1998 the surveillance of communications has more than trebled
- 552,550 "authorisations" were granted in 2010 to access communications data
- In 2010 there were 7,703 "covert human information sources" (CHIS) excluding MI5, MI6 and GCHQ

Many people, including the media, are often confused when it comes to understanding official figures on surveillance.

Three main sources of official information are published annually:

The Report of the Interception of Communications Commissioner: 2009 report (pdf)

This Report covers the issuing of warrants to intercept communications issued to the MI5, police, Special Branch and other government agencies like the UK Borders Agency. It does not cover warrants issued by the Foreign Office (which runs MI6, external intelligence agency, and Government Communications Headquarters, the UK's world-wide electronic intelligence-gathering agency, based in Cheltenham) nor those issued by the Northern Ireland Office.

The published figures on warrants issued underwent a major change in 1998. Previously a single figure was published but in that year policy changed and 2,031 warrants were issued plus 172 "modifications". "Modifications" would previously have required the issuing of a new warrant - so to get comparative annual figures the number of new warrants have to be added to the number of "modifications".

The 1998 changes meant that:

- previously each service provider used by an individual or organisation required a separate warrant. This was changed so that a warrant is now issued for each individual/organisation/premises and applies to all service providers used by them (phones, mobiles, internet providers, post etc). In simple terms a single warrant replaced maybe four or five separate warrants. And a single warrant can be issued against a whole organisation/premises covering hundreds of people. In theory this change should have meant that the number of warrants/modifications issued should have fallen but they did not, they grew.

- the time period of a warrant was extended, for example, warrants that used to cover three months are extended to six months.


Year              Warrants          Modifications          Total

1998                 2,031                  172                   2,203
2010                 1,865               6,409                   8,274

These figures do not include the Foreign Office (MI6, GCHQ) and Northern Ireland

Since 1998 the surveillance of communications has more than trebled.

State access to communications data

The Interception of Communications report also gives the figure for "authorisations" given to access "communications data" - which refers to data concerning a phone-call, e-mail, fax, mobile phone-call (and location) and internet usage (which also reveals the "content" of the "communication"). The number of "authorisations" are phenomenal:

- 1 January 2005 - 31 March 2006: 439,054 giving an adjusted annual figure of : 351,243
- 1 April - 31 December 2006: 253,557, giving an adjusted annual figure of: 338,076
- The year 2007: 519,260
- The year 2008: 504,073
- The year 2009: 525,130
The year 2010: 552,550

The bulk of "authorisations" are made by the police who have automated access to service providers records.

No figures are given for subsequent requests for access to the "content" of communications. Nor for the number of successful prosecutions resulting for the surveillance.

For a full explanation of the 1998 changes see: UK: Changes in telephone-tapping warrant procedures disguises true figures

For the full statistics see: Telephone tapping/interception (and mail-opening figures) 1937- 2010 ongoing

The Report of the Chief Surveillance Commissioner: 2009-2010 report (pdf)

This report covers property "interference" and "covert human information sources" (CHIS, people asked to, and often paid, to spy covertly). Property "interference" covers homes, hotels rooms, any premises/HQ, and vehicles. The scope includes police and other law enforcement agencies, local councils and government agencies. It does not include property warrants, intrusive surveillance (eg: "bugs" recording conversations) or the use of CHIS for MI5, MI6 or GCHQ.

In the Annual Report (2009-2010) the Commissioner says that there were:

- 2,701 "property interference authorisations" plus 666 renewals, a total of : 3,367
- 398 "intrusive surveillance authorisations" (eg: bugging bedrooms) plus 71 renewals, a total of 469
- 13,780 "directed surveillance authorisations" by the police ("Covert", but not intrusive) plus 2,413 are already in place, a total of 16,193
- 8,477 "directed surveillance authorisations" given by "other public authorities"
- 4,176 "covert human information sources" for the police, with 3,527 already in place, a total of 7,703

The Commissioner is clearly unhappy with the way his role is being treated by the government. First, he is threatening to public the official guidance on surveillance on his website as it "is not readily available to those who need it" and second, the Cabinet Office has decided to take over his website on which he comments: "It is essential that I remain independent and be seen to be independent".

For more details see: UK Chief Surveillance Commissioner 2003-2010

The Intelligence Services Commissioner: 2010 report (pdf)

As noted above property warrants, intrusive surveillance (eg: "bugs" recording conversations) or the use of CHIS for MI5, MI6 or GCHQ are not covered by the Surveillance Commissioner but by the Intelligence Commissioner (Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, Part II).

RIPA Part II covers covert surveillance (intrusive and directed) and CHIS ("undercover officers, agents and informants and the like"). While "property warrants" are issued by the Secretary of State (Foreign Office and Home Office) under Section 5 of the Intelligence and Security Act.

No figures at all are given for "property warrants" or "intrusive" or "directed" surveillance or for CHIS (who are described as "authorised to obtain information from people who do not know that this information will reach the intelligence service") by MI5, MI6 or GCHQ.

Tony Bunyan, August 2011

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