UK authorities, such as the police and secret services, placed over 570,000 requests for information including texts, emails and phone subscriber data in 2012. This marked a rise of 15 percent on 2011, but uses of this data led to wrongful arrests and accusations.
The data was revealed by the Interception of Communications Commissioner's (ICC) annual report, written by Sir Paul Kennedy. He attributed the rise, in part, to more training and awareness among authorities on using these powers as well as hosting the Olympic Games.
“The increase is unsurprising considering the fact that the UK hosted the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2012 and that communications data supported a number of operations undertaken to ensure the Games were safe,” he wrote.
The report also tried to downplay the number of requests by saying that many related to a single investigation and that the number of individuals targeted was lower.
“It is important to recognise that public authorities often make many requests for communications data in the course of a single investigation, so the total figure does not indicate the number of individuals or addresses targeted,” he said. “Those numbers are not readily available, but would be much smaller.”
However, the report was forced to admit that on a handful of occasions requests for internet data such as internet protocol or node name resolutions led to mistakes and wrongful arrests.
“Regrettably, five of these errors had very significant consequences for six members of the public who were wrongly detained or accused of crimes as a result of the errors,” Kennedy said.
“The remaining one error also caused an intrusion into the privacy of an individual, as an address was mistakenly visited by police looking for a child who had threatened to commit self harm.”
The report also noted that the number of lawful intercept warrants issued in 2012 – when authorities want to acquire the contents of an email, call or text message – was 3,372. In this instance, 55 errors were reported, the highest number in the past five years.
Despite these issues Kennedy said the use of data intercepts was clearly of major benefit for the UK to help tackle numerous threats.
“Interception and communications data remain powerful techniques in the investigation of many kinds of crime and threats to national security,” he said.
“Many of the largest drug-trafficking, excise evasion, people-trafficking, counter-terrorism and wider national security, and serious crime investigative successes of the recent past have in some way involved the use of interception and/or communications data.”
Critics were unimpressed by this, though, with Nick Pickles from privacy group Big Brother Watch, saying it was "laughable" that "one commissioner with a handful of staff can meaningfully scrutinise 570,000 surveillance requests".
"The commissioner continues to refuse to even say how many applications he inspected, which only reaffirms how unconvincing his assurances are," he said.
"If the public are to have confidence that these powers are being used properly our entire surveillance regime, devised before Facebook even existed, is in need of a total overhaul to bring it in line with modern technology and to ensure people's privacy is not intruded upon either without good reason or by mistake."
A report earlier this week by the Intelligence Security Committee said the UK's GHCQ had done no wrong in the PRISM scandal, but head of the agency admitted it may be time to readdress laws governing data interception and monitoring.
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