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UK’s Interception of Communications Commissioner — A Model of Accountability

Posted by Joe Sheehan at Jul 24, 2014 06:08 AM |
The United Kingdom maintains sophisticated electronic surveillance operations through a number of government agencies, ranging from military intelligence organizations to police departments to tax collection agencies. However, all of this surveillance is governed by one set of national laws outlining specifically what surveillance agencies can and cannot do.

The primary law that governs government investigations is the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, abbreviated as RIPA 2000.

To ensure that this law is being followed and surveillance operations in the United Kingdom are not conducted illegally, the RIPA 2000 Part I establishes an Interception of Communications Commissioner, who is tasked with inspecting the surveillance operations, assessing their legality, and compiling an annual report to for the Prime Minister.

On April 8, 2014 the current Commissioner, Rt Hon. Sir Anthony May, laid the 2013 annual report before the House of Commons and the Scottish Parliament. In its introduction, the report notes that it is responding to concerns raised as a result of Edward Snowden’s actions, especially misuse of powers by intelligence agencies and invasion of privacy. The report also acknowledges that the laws governing surveillance, and particularly RIPA 2000, are difficult for the average citizen to understand, so the report includes a narrative outline of relevant provisions in an attempt to make the legislation clear and accessible. However, the report points out that while the Commissioner had complete access to any documents or investigative records necessary to construct the report, the Commissioner was unable to publish surveillance details indiscriminately, due to confidentiality concerns in a report being issued to the public. (It is worth noting here that though the Commissioner is one man, he has an entire agency working under him, so it is possible that he himself did not do or write all of that the report attributes to him). As a whole, the report outlines a series of thorough audits of surveillance operations, and reveals that the overwhelming majority of surveillance in the UK is conducted entirely legally, and that the small minority of incorrectly conducted surveillance appears to be unintentional. Looking beyond the borders of the United Kingdom, the report represents a powerful model of a government initiative to ensure transparency in surveillance efforts across the globe.

The Role of the Commissioner

The report begins in the first person, by outlining the role of the Commissioner. May’s role, he writes, is primarily to audit the interception of data, both to satisfy his own curiosity and to prepare a report for the Prime Minister. Thus, his primary responsibility is to review the lawfulness of surveillance actions, and to that end, his organization possesses considerable investigative powers. He is also tasked with ensuring that prisons are legally administrated, though he makes this duty an afterthought in his report.

Everyone associated with surveillance or interception in the government must disclose whatever the commissioner asks for. In short, he seems well equipped to carry out his work. The Commissioner has a budget of £1,101,000, almost all of which, £948,000 is dedicated to staff salaries.

The report directly addresses questions about the Commissioner’s ability to carry out his duties. Does the Commissioner have full access to whatever materials or data it needs to conduct its investigations, the report asks, and it answers bluntly, yes. It is likely, the report concludes, that the Commissioner also has sufficient resources to adequately carry out his duties. Yes, the Commissioner is fully independent from other government interests; the commissioner answers his own question. Finally, the report asks if the Commissioner should be more open in his reports to the public about surveillance, and he responds that the sensitivity of the material prohibits him from disclosing more, but that the report adequately addresses public concern regardless. There is a degree to which this question and answer routine seems self-congratulatory, but it is good to see that the Commissioner is considering these questions as he carries out his duties.

Interception of Communications

The report first goes into detail about the Commissioner’s audits of communications interception operations, where interception means wiretapping or reading the actual content of text messages, emails, or other communications, as opposed to the metadata associated with communications, such as timestamps and numbers contacted. In this section, the report outlines the steps necessary to conduct an interception, outlining that an interception requires a warrant, and only a Secretary of State (one of five officials) can authorize an interception warrant. Moreover, the only people who can apply for such warrants are the directors of various intelligence, police, and revenue agencies. In practice, the Secretaries of State have senior staff that read warrant applications and present those they deem worthy to the Secretary for his or her signature, as their personal signature is required for authorization.

For a warrant to be granted, it must meet a number of criteria. First, interception warrants must be necessary in the interests of national security, to prevent or detect serious crime, or to safeguard economic wellbeing of the UK. Additionally, a warrant can be granted if it is necessary for similar reasons in other countries with mutual assistance agreements with the UK. Warrants must be proportionate to the ends sought. Finally, interception warrants for communications inside the UK must specify either a person or a location where the interception will take place. Warrants for communications outside of the UK require no such specificity.

In 2013, 2760 interception warrants were authorized, 19% fewer warrants than in 2012. The Commissioner inspected 26 different agencies and examined 600 different warrants throughout 2013. He gave inspected agencies a report on his findings after each inspection, so they could see whether or not they were following the law. He concluded that the agencies that undertake interception “do so lawfully, conscientiously, effectively, and in our national interest.” Thus, all warrants adequately meet the application and authorization requirements outlined in RIPA 2000.

Communications Data

The report goes on to discuss communications data collection, where communications data refers to metadata–not the content of the communications itself, but data associated with it, such as call durations, or a list of email recipients. The Commissioner explains that metadata is easier to obtain than an interception warrant. Designated officials in their respective surveillance organization read and grant metadata warrant applications, instead of one of the Secretaries of State who could grant interception warrants. Additionally, the requirements for a metadata warrant are looser than for interception warrants. Metadata warrants must still be necessary, but necessary for a broader range of causes, ranging from collecting taxes, protecting public health, or for any purpose specified by a Secretary of State.

The relative ease of obtaining a metadata warrant is consistent with a higher number of warrants approved. In 2013, 514,608 metadata warrants were authorized, down from 570,135 in 2012. Local law enforcement applied for 87.5% of those warrants while intelligence agencies accounted for 11.5%. Only a small minority of requests was sent from the revenue office or other departments.

The purposes of these warrants were similarly concentrated. 76.9% of metadata warrants were issued for prevention or detection of crime. Protecting national security justified 11.4% of warrants and another 11.4% of warrants were issued to prevent death or injury. 0.2% of warrants were to identify people who had died or otherwise couldn’t identify themselves, 0.11% of warrants were issued to protect the economic wellbeing of the United Kingdom, and 0.02% of warrants were associated with tax collection. The Commissioner identified less than 0.01% of warrants as being issued in a miscarriage of justice, a very low proportion.

The Commissioner inspected metadata surveillance efforts, conducting 75 inspections in 2013, and classified the practices of those operations inspected as good, fair or poor. 4% of operations had poor practices. He noticed two primary errors. The first was that data was occasionally requested on an incorrect communications address, and the second was that he could not verify that some metadata was not being stored past its useful lifetime. May highlighted that RIPA 2000 does not give concrete lengths for which data should be stored, as Section 15(3) states only that data must be deleted “as soon as there are no longer grounds for retaining it as necessary for any of the authorized purposes.”  He noted that he was only concerned because some metadata was being stored for longer periods than associated interception data. As May put it, “I have yet to satisfy myself fully that some of these periods are justified and in those cases I required the agencies to shorten their retention periods or, if not, provide me with more persuasive reasons.” The Commissioner seems determined that this practice will either be eliminated or better justified to him in the near future.

Indian Applications

The United Kingdom’s Interception of Communications Commissioner has similar powers to the Indian Privacy Commissioner suggested by the Report of the Group of Experts on Privacy.  Similar to the United Kingdom, it is recommended that a Privacy Commissioner in India have investigative powers in the execution of its charter, and that the Privacy Commissioner represent citizen interests, ensuring that data controllers are in line with the stipulated regulations. The Report also broadly states that “with respect to interception/access, audio & video recordings, the use of personal identifiers, and the use of bodily or genetic material, the Commissioner may exercise broad oversight functions.”  In this way, the Report touches upon the need for oversight of surveillance, and suggests that this responsibility may be undertaken by the Privacy Commissioner, but does not clearly place this responsibility with the Privacy Commissioner. This raises the question of if India should adopt a similar model to the United Kingdom – and create a privacy commissioner – responsible primarily for overseeing and enforcing data protection standards, and a separate surveillance commissioner – responsible for overseeing and enforcing standards relating to surveillance measures. When evaluating the different approaches there are a number of considerations that should be kept in mind:

  1. Law enforcement and security agencies are the exception to a number of data protection standards including access and disclosure.
  2. There is a higher level of ‘sensitivity’ around issues relating to surveillance than data protection and each needs to be handled differently.
  3. The ‘competence’ required to deliberate on issues related to data protection is different then the ‘competence’ required deliberating on issues related to surveillance.

Additionally, this raises the question of whether India needs a separate regulation governing data protection and a separate regulation governing surveillance.

Allegations of Wrongdoing

It is worth noting that though May describes surveillance operations conducted in compliance with the law, many other organizations have accused the UK government of abusing their powers and spying on citizens and internet users in illegal ways. The GCHQ, the government’s communications surveillance center has come under particular fire. The organization has been accused indiscriminate spying and introducing malware into citizen’s computers, among other things. Led by the NGO Privacy International, internet service providers around the world have recently lodged complaints against the GCHQ, alleging that it uses malicious software to break into their networks. Many of these complaints are based on the information brought to light in Edward Snowden’s document leaks. Privacy International alleges that malware distributed by GCHQ enables access to any stored content, logging keystrokes and “the covert and unauthorized photography or recording of the user and those around him,” which they claim is similar to physically searching through someone’s house unbeknownst to them and without permission. They also accuse GCHQ malware of leaving devices open to attacks by others, such as identity thieves.

Snowden’s files also indicate a high level of collaboration between GCHQ and the NSA. According to the Guardian, which analyzed and reported on many of the Snowden files, the NSA has in past years paid GCHQ to conduct surveillance operations through the US program called Prism. Leaked documents report that the British intelligence agency used Prism to generate 197 intelligence reports in the year to May 2012. Prism is not mentioned at all in the Interception of Communications Commissioner’s report. In fact, while the report’s introduction explains that it will attempt to address details revealed in Snowden’s leaked documents, very little of what those documents indicate is later referenced in the report. May ignores the plethora of accusations of GCHQ wrongdoing.

Thus, while May’s tone appears genuine and sincere, the details of his report do little to dispel fears of widespread surveillance. It is unclear whether May is being totally forthcoming in his report, especially when he devotes so little energy to directly responding to concerns raised by Snowden’s leaks.


May wrapped up his report with some reflections on the state of surveillance in the United Kingdom. He concluded that RIPA 2000 protects consumers in an internet age, though small incursions are imaginable, and especially lauds the law for it’s technological neutrality. That is, RIPA 2000 is a strong law because it deals with surveillance in general and not with any specific technologies like telephones or Facebook, use of which changes over time. The Commissioner also was satisfied that powers were not being misused in the United Kingdom. He reported that there have been a small number of unintentional errors, he noted, and some confusion about the duration of data retention. However, any data storage mistakes seemed to stem from an unspecific law.

Despite May’s report of surveillance run by the books, other UK groups have accused GCHQ, the government’s communications surveillance center, of indiscriminate spying and introducing malware into citizen’s computers. Privacy International has submitted a claim arguing that a litany of malware is employed by the GCHQ to log detailed personal data such as keystrokes. The fact that May’s report does little to disprove these claims casts the Commissioner in an uncertain light.  It is unclear whether surveillance is being conducted illegally or, as the report suggests, all surveillance of citizens is being conducted as authorized.

Still, the concept of a transparency report and audit of a nation’s surveillance initiatives report is a step towards government accountability done right, and should serve as a model for enforcement methods in other nations. May’s practice of giving feedback to the organizations he inspects allows them to improve, and the public report he releases serves as a deterrent to illegal surveillance activity. The Interception of Communications Commissioner–provided he reports truthfully and accurately–is what gives the safeguards built into the UK’s interception regime strength and accountability. In other nations looking to establish privacy protections, a similar role would make their surveillance provisions balanced with safeguards and accountability to ensure that the citizens fundamental rights–including the right to privacy–are not compromised.