A closer look at this year’s surveillance reports
28 July 2009
The annual reports from the Chief Surveillance Commissioner (2008-2009) and the Interception of Communications Commissioner (2008)just came out. They contain some interesting statistics, buried in the mist of boring self-congratulations on how wonderful the surveillance regime is in the UK.
First of all we get a bit of an idea on how, and how often, the RIPA part III powers to compel decryption or request keys, are to be used. It seems, from both reports, that any such request has to be approved by NTAC first, before anyone is served. Then a judge rubber-stamps the request that is served to an individual. These individual comply or go to jail, the theory goes. In the period 2008-2009:
- NTAC approved 26 applications to serve a decryption notice (and declined 1).
- A judge approved 17 notices (and zero were declined).
- 15 notices were served.
- 11 individuals failed to comply (the assumption is that 4 of them complied)
- 7 individuals were charged as a result of their failure to comply
- 2 individuals were convicted
What does all this add to? About 10% or less conviction rate for failing to comply with a notice (2 / 22, assuming 4 complied). It would of course be of interest to find out if any of those who complied were charged and convicted with any offences, or whether the requests are just keeping honest people honest.
It is a real pity more qualitative information is not provided about the specific cases that reached court, aside the fact that the powers were used to investigate counter terrorism, child indecency and domestic extremism. Finding how each case went would be quite worth while.
The appendix B of the Surveillance Commissioner has a rough breakdown of the authorisations for property interference as well as surveillance, by types of offence investigated. The trends, and changes, between this period (2008-2009) and the previous period (2007-2008) are very interesting, and again totally unexplained in the text of the report. Some highlights:
- Most of the authorisations for property interference are related to drugs offenses (63% in 2008-2009, and 60% in 2007-2008). That seems pretty stable, and is the single biggest category by an order of magnitude.
- We used to have a terrorism problem, with about 4.8% of property interference related to it in 2007-2008. It seems we have ran out of terrorism to investigate in 2008-2009, and now it only accounts for 0.6% of all cases of property interference. That is nearly an order of magnitude reduction.
- While terrorism is down, conspiracy investigations are up: 2.8% of authorisations related to it in 2008-2009, versus only 1.5% for the previous year. That may not be unrelated to the shift of looking at “domestic terrorism”, with the usual silly “conspiracy to cause a nuisance” charges.
- It is unclear where child indicency fits in any of these categories, despite requiring some property interference, presumably to raid people and seize their computers.
Similar trends are observed when it comes to intrusive surveillance authorised under RIPA Part II. Drugs are biger than anything else, terrorism is no more a pretext for surveillance (1 case!) and conspiracy is becoming popular with a serious increase of surveillance. The investigations of burglaries and robberies using surveillance and property interference is also up. About 2681 property interference authorisations were issued, and 384 intrusive surveilance authorisations were served in 2008-2009. (There were also 16118 directed surveillance authorisations.)
The interception of communication figures look relatively similar. In 2008 about the same number of warrants were issued or active under RIPA (2599 RIPA warrants) for intercepting communications. The fact that the numbers are of the same order of magnitude may suggest that the different authorisations are used as a “bundle” for particular cases. It might also be just a coincidence.
There are no specific figures about access to traffic data (under traffic data retention regimes) but it is estimated that out of all requests 80% concern subscriber information, e.g. who is behind this telephone number? This is in-line with previous statistics.
What about CHIS, the euphemism for Covert Human Intelligence Source, or more commonly known as a “snitch“? There were 3722 CHIS at the end of March 2009, and 4278 recruited in the year. This means that on average each CHIS is used for a bit less than a year. The variance can of course be significant.
Overall the pictured offered is that the UK is a really quiet place. With about 60 Million people and only about 3000-4000 cases requiring surveillance authorisations, let alone the laughable 26 applications to coerce decryption, there seems to be more rhetoric about serious crime, than there is serious crime. Of course there statistics exclude warrants obtained by MI5 and SIS, who are subject to a different oversight body, that is much less keen on publishing statistics. It is not unlikely that a lot of the terrorism and political crimes are investigated there.