Two people wrongly detained after communications interception errors

For the last decade and more, the publication of the Interception of Communication Commissioner’s Annual Reports has gone largely unremarked, even when they have contained news of copious errors or news (by omission) of a Commissioner not investigating evidence of widespread breaking of the rules he is meant to oversee (see my previous posts).

This year, however, with the Draft Communications Bill hanging over us and given a helping hand by a deft MP, it is rather different, as this sampling of coverage shows:

Two wrongfully arrested after comms data blunders
Flawed communications data led to two people being wrongfully arrested last year, according to a government report.

The report from the Interception of Communications Commissioner showed there were 494,078 requests for communications data in 2011, down 11% from the year before. Those led to 895 errors, up from 640 the year before. (PC Pro)

Rachel Robinson, of the campaign group Liberty, said: “This report shows the dangers of government plans to make phone and internet companies hold even more records on the communication and browsing habits of the whole population. The scale of surveillance revealed is alarming, but worse still is that hundreds of errors subjected the wrong people to targeted surveillance by public authorities.

“That two innocent people were wrongly detained and accused of crimes as a result of these blunders should make the government think again about turning us into a nation of suspects rather than citizens.” (The Guardian)

Almost 1,000 innocent people have been wrongly spied on by the police, security services and town halls because of errors in “snooping” requests.
The figures will renew concerns over the Government plans to expand the amount of phone, email and internet information law enforcement and intelligence agencies can access.

Overall, police, security services and other public bodies made 494,078 requests to access data last year – the equivalent of 1,350 a day. (Daily Telegraph)

What has not changed is the continuing tone of complacency through much of the report. Digging around in the numbers reveals, for example, that the 43 visits to inspect law enforcement agencies resulted in 11 recommendations being issued to them in order to deal with “serious non-compliance”. Those 11 may not have each been as a result of a different visit (the report does not say other than at least three different visit were involved), but even with some visits having triggered more than one recommendation to deal with serious non-compliance, law enforcement agencies are not as good at following these laws as they should be.

Similarly, one in ten police forces are failing to keep even satisfactory (let alone good) records of the urgent oral applications, which is particularly worrying as this process is one of those most open to abuse due to its lower level of safeguards than the non-urgent processes. What is more, as the New York Times phone hacking investigation suggests (see the sixth point here), either the urgent or non-urgent process was most likely regularly abused over many years – and once again the Interception of Communications Commissioner report shows no sign of investigating this evidence of long-term repeated failure of the regulatory system.

* Mark Pack is Party President and is the editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire.

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  • Stuart Mitchell 14th Jul '12 - 1:01pm

    It’s a shame that the Commissioner has decided (or been told) to stop publishing figures for the number of intercept warrants issued directly by the Home Secretary. Last year’s report showed that, despite all the anti-RIPA rhetoric from the government, the number of such warrants had actually increased dramatically in 2010. It appears we are not allowed to know whether this trend continued in 2011.

  • Richard Dean 14th Jul '12 - 3:18pm

    One cannot expect a policing system to be perfect, and 895 errors in 494078 requests is a remarkable low error rate of 2 in a thousand. Of course we would like it lower, but our system of justice takes account of the reality and fallibility of human police forces by separating the process of detection from the process of trial and judgment.

    In effect, each citizen pays a price for the safety acquired through police work, and part of the price is to tolerate being wrongfully arrested occasionally. And the incidence of that seems incredibly low – only two in 494078 requests, equivalent to less that one in two hundred thousand. Much lower than many other places on this earth!

    494078 requests to access data does seem high – one in every hundred of the population, but then again these are just requests, and in some case there may perhaps be more than one request for a particular individual – this seems reasonable since a given malicious individual is perhaps unlikely to commit only one crime per year.

    And of course it is right to observe the increase in errors year on year and to work to reducing the errors in future.

    But it would not be right to infer from these statistics that our system of justice is oppressive or that it involves major violations of the population’s human rights of privacy. The very low error rates suggest quite the reverse!

    What is perhaps more to the point, though, would be if there were biasses that meant that some communities experienced inappropriately higher surveillance or error rates – such as ethnic minorities. Are there statistics availble for that?

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