State surveillance

State sanctioned surveillance against specific individuals takes place on a massive scale, using the broad and confusing framework created under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) which regulates the use of and access to surveillance by public bodies.

This involves five types of different surveillance:

  1. Interception of communications – e.g. listening to telephone calls, reading letters and emails
  2. Intrusive surveillance – e.g. placing bugs and filming in private places
  3. Directed surveillance – e.g. filming and covertly monitoring specific people generally in public places
  4. Use of covert human intelligence sources – e.g. informants and undercover operatives
  5. Accessing communications data – e.g. accessing the record (but not the content) of emails, telephone calls and websites visited.

Under RIPA hundreds of public bodies have access to the last three types of surveillance including over 470 local authorities. Surveillance can be authorised for a wide range of purposes which includes such vague purposes as preventing ‘disorder’ or collecting tax.

Interception of communications and some types of intrusive surveillance are authorised by the Home Secretary and other types of surveillance are largely self-authorised.

Liberty believes that RIPA must be reformed to ensure that intrusions into personal privacy are all properly authorised and comply with human rights principles of necessity and proportionality.

The main changes we are calling for are:

  • Surveillance requests (including interception, acquisition of communications data, use of Covert Human Intelligence Sources etc) must be subject to prior judicial authorisation. There is growing consensus on the need for judicial not political warrantry.
  • No new Snoopers’ Charter powers to require communications companies to store more – and more revealing types – of our communications data. David Anderson warned that the case had not been made. Only Russia requires service providers to routinely store the weblogs of all their customers.
  • Surveillance should be conducted only for a narrow range of tightly defined purposes i.e. investigation of serious crime and other legitimate objectives such as preventing risk to life – instead of the vague and non-crime related purposes currently permitted e.g. for communications data.
  • All surveillance powers should be publicly disclosed and the safeguards and processes for authorisation set out in in primary legislation. This is not currently the case at least with regard to CNE aka hacking.
  • Improved redress mechanisms for those subject to unlawful surveillance – the IPT should be overhauled and made more transparent with a right of appeal and an ability to make declarations of incompatibility and once an investigation has been completed, or once a person is no longer under any suspicion, he or she should be notified of the relevant surveillance unless there is a specific reason for maintaining secrecy.
  • The bar on the admissibility of intercept evidence, properly obtained, in criminal proceedings should be lifted. Why is this vital evidence not used to bring perpetrators to justice?
  • Legal and proportionate arrangements for the sharing of surveillance data should be agreed between the UK  and foreign States, made publically available and incorporated into law.
  • Improvement of Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties (MLAT) – the appropriate legal route for the UK authorities to obtain data from foreign tech firms – should replace attempts to place extraterritorial obligations on overseas service providers.
  • Legislative protection against the breaking of encryption standards.  
  • A targeted – as opposed to blanket – approach to communications data retention and interception.

Liberty’s position on RIPA is set out in greater detail in this consultation response (PDF).

In June 2013 the Snowden leaks revealed that GCHQ, the UK's eavesdropping agency, is intercepting and processing billions of communications every day and sharing the information with the US. This includes recordings of phone calls, the content of email messages, entries on social media sites and the history of an internet user's access to websites. All without public acknowledgement.

The project – Tempora – has been in existence since the beginning of 2012. The leaks also suggest that the US authorities have similarly breathtaking and direct access to global communications via the world’s biggest internet companies. This secretive programme is known as PRISM and reports suggest that the UK also accesses this data.

In May 2013 the Draft Communications Data Bill was notable by its absence from the Queen’s Speech. It would have required internet and phone companies to retain records of our calls, emails, texts and web visits. It now appears those who failed to make the case for the Draft Comms Bill already smuggled a more intrusive Snoopers’ Charter for blanket surveillance through the back door.

Liberty has filed a claim against the British security services for their role in PRISM and Tempora. We will be lobbying and campaigning for urgent amendment to the outdated laws governing surveillance and an end to blanket surveillance of the population.