Private data access concerns raised
Police ask for permission to access private communications data once every two minutes, with less than 8% of all requests refused by senior officers, a new report claims.
Big Brother Watch said its research raised transparency concerns at a time when plans are being made to introduce legislation granting law enforcement and the security services greater powers to access information in order to fight crime and terrorism.
The analysis found that UK forces made 733,237 requests for communications data between January 2012 and last December, with 679,073 granted internally and 54,164 (7.9%) rejected. The average approval rate across all forces was 96%, Big Brother Watch said.
The organisation called for standardised rules governing access to information after finding wide varieties in how many requests were granted, with some forces allowing almost all of the requests for data by officers and others refusing larger proportions.
Renate Samson, its chief executive, said: "We are repeatedly told that communications data plays a significant role in modern policing, yet the reports' findings pose serious questions about the internal approval process which differs from force to force.
"With police forces making over 730,000 requests for communications data in the past three years, political mutterings of diminishing access to our communications are clearly overstated.
"If greater access to our communications, clearer internal procedures is to be granted, increased transparency and independent judicial approval should be introduced as standard.
"Until these safeguards exist, the public will have little confidence that the powers to access their communications are being used only when it is truly necessary and proportionate."
Last week's Queen's speech saw the Government lay out plans for the Investigatory Powers Bill, designed to "provide the police and intelligence agencies with the tools to keep you and your family safe".
It covers all investigatory powers and is expected to be more wide-ranging than the 2013 Communications Data Bill - labelled a Snooper's Charter by critics - which was shelved after opposition from the Liberal Democrats.
Gloucestershire Assistant Chief Constable Richard Berry, communications data lead for the National Police Chiefs' Council said it was open to suggestions and would consider Big Brother Watch's proposals.
He described communications data as a "vital resource" for everything from combating international terrorism to locating missing persons.
He said the practice was governed by strict laws and codes of practice, with applications assessed by specially trained and vetted staff.
"They consider the important principles of necessity, proportionality and collateral intrusion. They can decline applications for communications data; this is a sign that the checks and balances in the system are working as they should."
Big Brother Watch's report, Police Access to Communications Data, defines that data as "the who, where and when of any text, email, phone call or web search".
It said the Metropolitan Police, the country's largest force, made by far the most requests, with 177,287 in three years, followed by West Midlands Police (99,444) and Police Scotland (62,075).
However, Scotland Yard saw 32,879 requests (18%) rejected, while Police Scotland approved all but 1,080 (1.7%) of requests.
Cheshire Police had the lowest percentage of refused requests, with seven out of 5,848, or 0.1%, turned down. The force with the highest proportion of refusals was Essex, with 5,560 (28%).
The report makes five policy suggestions, including introducing judicial approval for all requests, a new definition of what constitutes "communications data", standardised procedures for making requests for all forces and telecoms companies, and making police forces produce "transparency reports".
Chief Superintendent Stephen Graham, head of West Midlands Police's intelligence department, said: "Mobile phones now play a vital role in the investigation of crimes and help to locate missing people or cases where we have threats to life.
"The information gives details of when a call was made and which phone number was called. It may also give details of the location of the people making and receiving the call but would not include what they say or what data they pass on within a communication, including text, audio and video.
"People may think that it is an extension of police powers when all it is doing is giving us the ability to do what we already do."
The Metropolitan Police declined to comment and Police Scotland did not respond to requests for comment.