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Spying requests

We all heard that UK has the greatest number of surveillance cameras in the world. Her citizens are also constantly being monitored on all types of communications. USA has similar development where a recent legislation gives the government greater power in monitoring overseas telephone calls and email transmissions. Many people trust the government in doing the right things, and that she will be careful in handling personal information. Such monitoring may only be used in time of crises, terrorist acts or serious crime. In Hong Kong, the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance has an exemption clause that law enforcement agencies may obtain personal data from data owners in case of serious crime. However, we never have any idea of the extent of the exemption.

It is interesting to read the recent article below in BBC regarding the number of “spying requests”. Such requests are legitimate actions under the law for data owners such as telecommunication and Internet companies to release the personal information of their customers to the authorities. There are more than 500,000 such requests in UK last year. It should be bear in mind that this figure only represents requests put officially to the companies. They may not include covert operations where official requests were not made, nor data owned by enforcement agencies themselves. The total number of cases investigated may be ten times more, making it 5 million, or 14,000 cases per day.

The other alarming sign emerged is that many such requests for personal data were used in minor offenses instead of serious crimes. The examples quoted by the Interception of Communications Commission were rubbish dumping and tax avoidance. I suspect such practices are widespread. Any bureaucrat could not resist the temptation of readily available information for the expediency of doing their job.

I looked at the article and am amused to note that, on the one hand the Interception of Communications Commission and the Chief Surveillance Commissioner criticized the use of personal data in minor offenses, on the other hand the Home Secretary said it provided vital intelligence that would prevent a terrorist attack, as well as tackling “antisocial behaviour and rogue traders. It may be debatable whether freedom and human rights are infringed and to what extent. In any case, there is nothing wrong in suppressing antisocial behaviour and rogue traders. Actually, the question is what constitutes such behaviour and who can decide.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008 20:56 UK
‘Spying’ requests exceed 500,000

More than 500,000 official “spying” requests for private communications data such as telephone records were made last year, a report says. Police, security services and other public bodies made requests for billing details and other information. Interception of Communications Commissioner Sir Paul Kennedy said 1,707 of these had been from councils. A separate report criticizes local authorities for using powers to target minor offences such as fly-tipping.

Figures show public bodies made 519,260 requests to “communications providers” such as phone and internet firms for information in 2007. Under available powers, they can see details such as itemized phone bills and website records. But they are not allowed to monitor conversations. The total number of requests for last year – amounting to more than 1,400 a day – compared with an average of fewer than 350,000 a year in the previous two years. In his report, Sir Paul said he believed “local authorities could make much more use of communications data as a powerful tool to investigate crime”.

But a separate report, by Chief Surveillance Commissioner Sir Christopher Rose, criticizes the techniques employed by local authorities to deal with minor offences such as fly-tipping or avoiding council tax. He said some councils had a “tendency to expose lack of understanding of the legislation” and displayed a “serious misunderstanding of the concept of proportionality”. Some authorizing officers were inexperienced and suffered “poor oversight”, he added. He called on town halls to invest in properly trained intelligence officers who could operate covertly.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said: “The commissioners’ reports offer valuable oversight and provide reassurance that these powers are being used appropriately. “These powers can make a real difference in delivering safer communities and protecting the public – whether enabling us to gain that vital intelligence that will prevent a terrorist attack, working to tackle antisocial behaviour or ensuring that rogue traders do not defraud the public.”