Office of Surveillance Commissioners issues warning over social media snooping

The Office of Surveillance Commissioners (OSC), led by Chief Surveillance Commissioner The Rt Hon Sir Christopher Rose, has published its Annual Report for 2013-2014. Emma Carr (director of Big Brother Watch) highlights some of the main points.

*Intrusive surveillance authorisations have increased from 362 to 392
*Directed surveillance by law enforcement agencies (LEAs) has increased from 9,515 to 9,664
*Directed surveillance by public authorities (PAs) has decreased from 5,827 to 4,412
*Active LEA covert human intelligence sources: 4,377 were authorised, 3,025 remain authorised
*Active covert human intelligence sources (non-LEA): 53 were authorised

The Commissioner notes that the information included in the 2013-2014 Annual Report is for 100% of LEAs and 96.6% of all other PAs. However, Sir Christopher Rose notes: “I am once again slightly disappointed that a few public authorities appear to treat my request for statistical returns as an option” and that: “I have therefore decided that, as from next year, those public authorities which have failed to respond within the set deadline will be named in my Annual Report.”

The Commissioner also raises the fact that there have been a number of occasions where senior officers have failed to meet with inspectors. These comments would therefore indicate that among some LEA and PAs there’s a potential problem of the OSC not being taken seriously.

The Commissioner also notes that, since the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 was introduced, there has been a “downward trend” in the number of applications made and authorisations granted which “may or may not be attributable to this enactment.”

Emma Carr: director of Big Brother Watch

Emma Carr: director of Big Brother Watch

The Commissioner raises concerns about the lack of a common approach from councils towards the authorising process now that it’s controlled by Magistrates. He goes on to warn that “the knowledge and understanding of RIPA among magistrates and their staff varies widely.” The Commissioner notes that there’s certainly a need for “adequate training or magistrates” and their colleagues.

Worryingly, the Commissioner cites two examples of inappropriate authorisations: one having granted approval for activity retrospectively, and another having signed a formal notice despite it having been erroneously completed by the applicant with details of a different case altogether.

Social media and covert investigations

One of the most interesting sections of the report relates to the use of social media for covert investigations by PAs. The Commissioner states that he “strongly” advises all public bodies to put in place proper policies designed to deal with social media investigations due to a lack of demonstrable understanding of the law from some workers involved in investigations.

The report states that: “In cash-strapped public authorities, it might be tempting to conduct online investigations from a desktop as this saves time and money and often provides far more detail about someone’s personal lifestyle, employment and associates, etc, but just because one can does not mean one should.”

While long overdue, the Commissioner is absolutely right to acknowledge that many PAs around the country may well be covertly gathering intelligence from social media sites on an illegal basis.

RIPA 2000 was created while Google was still in its infancy and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter didn’t exist. It would therefore be ridiculous to expect that the legislation would allow the use of the Internet to proportionately investigate crimes while ensuring that safeguards are in place to protect the public’s privacy.

A far more open discussion about what data should be monitored – as well as whether the legal framework is truly fit for the digital age – is now required.

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