Watchdog warns over data errors

Published: Thursday 12th March 2015 by The News Editor

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The number of errors made by law enforcement agencies accessing people’s personal communications data has gone up, a watchdog reported – in some cases with “multiple and serious consequences” for innocent individuals.

Interception of Communications Commissioner Sir Anthony May said an inquiry had concluded that there was no “significant institutional overuse” of powers, despite the total rising last year by another 2,600 to stand at 514,608 – more than 1,400 per day.

But it did find that ” a proportion of the applications did not adequately deal with the question of necessity or proportionality” and there were occasions on which “the powers had been used improperly or unnecessarily”.

His office launched the probe after being taken aback by the sheer volume of authorisations being granted under part one, chapter two of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) to access the “who, when and where” but not the content of personal communications.

Reported errors rose from 970 to 998 – 84.4% the fault of public authorities and 14.3% communication service providers.

There were 12 technical system errors and nine human errors “that resulted in multiple or serious consequences; for example, action being taken against the wrong individual or delays in welfare checks on persons in crisis”, the annual report said.

A rise was also recorded in warrants granted to intelligence agencies to access the content of communications – requiring the sign-off of a Secretary of State – from 2,760 to 2,795, with errors going up from 57 to 60.

They included over-collection and unauthorised selection or examination of material to the wrong addresses being bugged.

But the Commissioner claimed success in forcing the agencies to destroy “a significant amount of material” for which they were unable to provide “a persuasive justification” for retaining.

Sir Anthony said: “My office continues to challenge positively the necessity and proportionality justifications put forward by the public authorities to ensure that the significant privacy implications are always at the forefront of their minds when they are working to protect the public in the interests of national security, to save life or to prevent or detect crime.

“Nevertheless there is always room for improvement and the work that my office undertakes assists public authorities to keep their systems and their use of these intrusive powers under constant review.

“The areas I oversee continue to attract comment and debate and there is a diverse range of interested and informed people who are, and should continue to, contribute to ensure the debate is informed and accurate.

“My office has undertaken considerable work to engage in the debate which demonstrates our commitment to understanding the issues and better informing the public about our work.

“Much more remains to be done and we will continue to provide independent, accurate, unbiased advice and substantive evidence that is not affected by political persuasion to the debate and various reviews.”

The report pointed to the “devastating” impact of errors leading to the wrong home being visited by police investigating issues of child protection.

Last year there were four occasions when errors ” caused a delay in the police conducting welfare checks on a person in crisis” and another 12 where an innocent individual was visited by police or a warrant executed at the wrong address.

“Some of these errors occurred in relation to the resolution of Internet Protocol addresses and the consequences of these are particularly acute,” it concluded.

“An IP address is often the only line of inquiry in a child protection case, and it may be difficult for the police to corroborate the information before taking some form of action against the individual identified.

“Any police action taken erroneously in such cases, such as the search of an innocent individual’s house, can have a devastating impact on the individual concerned.

“These errors are extremely regrettable and it is fortunate that errors with such severe consequences are rare.”

Published: Thursday 12th March 2015 by The News Editor

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