August 10, 2009

1 In 78 Brits Targeted For Surveillance: Report

British police, intelligence services and local councils made more than half a million requests to access the private telephone records and emails of citizens last year, according to an annual report of government surveillance released by the Interception of Communications Commissioner.

The figures show that roughly 1,500 surveillance requests were made every day in Britain, the annual equivalent to one in every 78 people being targeted.    

Although these numbers represent a slight decrease from last year, the total is still up more than 40 percent from two years ago.

The vast majority of requests to access people's private records were made by the police and security services, the report found, but about 1,500 requests were granted to local council officials.  Most of the local council requests were for investigations of  trivial offenses such as dog fouling, spurring concern that the system is being misused.

Each approved surveillance request allows government bodies to access data about the telephone records, email and text messages.  But it does not permit access to the actual content of the conversations or messages.

"It doesn't allow you to see the content of the message or conversation. It's about the who, where and when -- the time element essentially in directed surveillance," said a British Home Office spokesman.

Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrats' home affairs spokesman, said the report "beggared belief," and warned that the British public seems to have "sleepwalked into a surveillance state."

"Many of these operations carried out by the police and security services are necessary, but the sheer numbers are daunting," he said.

"It cannot be a justified response to the problems we face in this country that the state is spying on half a million people a year," Reuters quoted Huhne as saying.

"The government forgets that George Orwell's 1984 was a warning and not a blueprint."

The Liberal Democrats say only a magistrate should be allowed to approve surveillance requests, under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA).  The law was introduced in 2000 to incorporate the latest technology advancements, and was extended in 2003 by then home secretary David Blunkett to combat serious crimes and terrorism.

In the current report, Paul Kennedy also discovered 595 errors in interception requests last year, including mistakes made by the MI5 and MI6 domestic and foreign intelligence services.