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Highest ever UK phone-tapping figures
from Statewatch May-August 1999 (Vol 9 no 3) Sept 1999

In 1998 the UK recorded a record number of interception warrants, now the Home Office is proposing to increase both the scope and deployment of intrusive surveillance The number of warrants issued in England and Wales for telephone-tapping and mail-opening in 1998 was 1,763 - the highest figure since records began.

Indeed it is a higher yearly figure than any during the Second World War (1939-45) including the previous top figure for 1940 - 1,682. The number of warrants for tapping in Scotland in 1998, 268 is the highest since they were first published in 1967. This is a rise from 256 in 1997 and 228 in 1996. Only one warrant was issued for mail opening.

The number of warrants signed by the Home Secretary, in England and Wales issued in 1996 for intercepting "communications" was 1,646 - beating the previous record in 1996 and the highest since records began in 1937. In his annual report for 1996 the Commissioner, Lord Nolan, acknowledged that "telecommunications" warrants cover "aII forms of telecommunications including telephone, facsimile, telex and other data transmissions whereby the information is communicated via a public telecommunications system".


In his report for 1998 the Commissioner obliquely refers to "a substantial increase in interception" being due to "an increase in the interception facilities available". The over fifty percent rise in "tapping" warrants from 1,073 in England and Wales in 1996 to 1,646 in 1998 suggests that this may be due to the interception of e-mail traffic or it could reflect a larger number of individuals or organisations under surveillance - each of the warrants issued can cover more than one phoneline if they are issued to cover an organisation or group.

The figures only give - as usual - part of the picture. Under Section 2 of the Interception of Communications Act 1985 warrants to intercept communications are meant to be applied for by the Metropolitan Police Special Branch, the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS), Customs and Excise, Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the Security Service (M15), the Secret Intelligence Service (M16), the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and Scottish Police Forces. However the number of warrants issued by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland ( RUC and M15) and the Foreign secretary (M16& GCHQ) are not published, nor are the numbers issued in response to a request from another state. Nor, of course, will "bug and burgle" figures resulting from new powers under the Police Act 1997 (see Statewatch vol 6 no 6).


Total figures for warrants issued, England and Wales 1989-1998:
1989 = 458
1990 = 515
1991 = 732
1992 = 874
1993 = 998
1994 = 947
1995 = 997
1996 = 1,142
1997 = 1,456
1998 = 1,763

Total figures for Scotland 1989-1996:
1989 = 64
1990 = 66
1991 = 82
1992 = 92
1993 = 122
1994 = 100
1995 = 138
1996 = 228
1997 = 256
1998 = 268


In 1995 Lord Nolan's report said that "the number of warrants issued under the counter-subversion head remains very small", for 1996 it said: "there are no warrants in force under the counter-subversion head". In the 1997 report it says: "no warrants [were] in force… during 1997 for counter-subversion." The 1998 report for the first time in three years by its silence on this issue gives no such assurance. One issue the Commissioner had to confront during 1998 was the unlawful interception of "pager" messages: "The police and HM Customs and Excise have always made extensive operational use of their capacity to intercept radio pagers.." Between 1985 and I 992 this method of surveillance was subject to warrants issued by the Home Secretary.

Then this practice was stopped on the "legal advice" that pagers were not subject to the 1985 Act and instead Customs and Excise relied on section 5 of the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1949 and the police on section 9 of the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act (which allows them to ask for and generally obtain "production orders" in the Crown Court). On 22 January 1998 a judge at Worcester Crown Court refused a police application for a production order on the grounds that:
i) he could not grant such an order for material (namely, a pager message) which did not yet exist and
ii) the police could not lawfully intercept messages under the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1949 because they were not "servants of the Crown" as required by the Act.

Consequently the judge ruled that the police could not lawfully intercept pager messages without the authorisation of the Home Secretary or someone acting on his behalf. The new warranting procedure introduced by the Home Office in reaction to this case allows the police to apply for a "pager interception warrant" via the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS) or the Metropolitan Police Special Branch (similar arrangements have been put in place in Scotland and Northern Ireland).


The issue remains contentious because the authorisation of warrants to intercept pagers is to be delegated to officials nominated by the Secretaries of State. Lord Nolan, usually uncritical in his reports, clearly does not agree. In his view such interception should only be allowed on "the personal authority of the Secretary of State". The Commissioner is also investigating "a serious breach" of the 1985 Act which bears on the discussion of EU telecommunications surveillance. While conducting "operational liaison" in 1996 with a police officer from another European country a "senior officer" of an English force handed over written material of a "target's communications [which] were being intercepted under warrant."

This senior officer then "supplied the Liaison officer with several pages containing summaries of intercepted communications as part of the ongoing cooperation". No complaints from the public were upheld by the Tribunal - in fact, no complaint has ever been upheld since the Act of I 985 was introduced. Report of the Commissioner for 1998, interception of Communications Act 1985. Cm 4364, HMSO, £4.00. The yearly figures for intercpetion since 1937 are on the Statewatch database on the internet:

(See also: Electronic Communications Bill - Police state gets closer)

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