Inquiry announced into police and councils tapping into phone calls and emails

The Northern Echo: Investigation into snooping Investigation into snooping

THE region's police forces are snooping on phone calls and emails 53 times every day, it has been revealed - triggering an investigation.

The surveillance watchdog has raised the alarm over forces using powers to tap into communications data far too often, warning privacy may be at risk.

And it announced an inquiry into whether there should be stricter curbs on the police and other law enforcement bodies - to ensure snooping is not an "automatic resort".

A report to Parliament revealed that forces in the North-East and North Yorkshire tapped into communications data a staggering 19,444 times in 2013.

The highest total was recorded by Durham police (6,218), followed by Northumbria (6,211), North Yorkshire (4,058) and then Cleveland (2,957).

Authorisation is granted to uncover the "who, when and where" of a communication, such as who owns the phone, or email address, or computer IP address.

The police also learn who that person was in contact with electronically - but not what was said in that communication.

The powers are granted under the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa), which the Coalition altered after protests, to curb excessive spying.

Sir Anthony May, the Interception of Communications Commissioner, said public bodies had secured a total of 514,608 requests for communications data nationwide, last year.

His report concluded: "It seems to me to be a very large number. It has the feel of being too many.

"I have accordingly asked our inspectors to take a critical look at the constituents of this bulk to see if there might be a significant institutional overuse.

"This may apply in particular to police forces and law enforcement agencies who between them account for approaching 90 per cent of the bulk."

Nationwide, most communications were tapped into to "prevent or detect crime, or prevent disorder", followed by "emergency, to prevent death or injury".

Durham Police mounted a strong defence of its use of covert tactics, arguing almost everybody no used a mobile phone and the internet.

The force insisted it "takes the privacy of individuals seriously" and that every application under Ripa is considered by a senior person independent of the investigation.

Detective Superintendent Lee Johnson said: "Some individuals in society have no consideration of the rights of others and commit crime and make use of phones to enable the commission of the crime.

"When identifying the location of a missing person, a wanted person, or how a phone has been used in the commission of a crime, it is now an important investigative tool to make use of call data in locating someone, or proving their criminality.

"The public expect the police service to make effective use of tools available to them to protect vulnerable individuals in society, or identify offenders and bring them to justice."

And Home Secretary Theresa May backed forces, saying: "Communications data is vital in helping to keep the public safe: it is used to investigate crimes, bring offenders to justice and to save lives."

The annual report also listed many local authorities which snooped on phone calls and emails last year, including York (80 times) and Redcar and Cleveland (69).

However, a spokesman for Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council said its high figure was explained by its regional role coordinating 'Scambusters' trading standards crackdowns.

In fact, only one of the 69 authorisations listed in the watchdog's report was actually carried out by Redcar and Cleveland, he added.

Similarly, a spokesman for York City Council said its high figure was the result of its similar regional role in tackling 'e-crime'.

It said it applied through the National Anti-Fraud Network to identify those behind the telephone numbers they were investigating, but not the content of the messages.

Colin Rumford, City of York Council's Head of Regional Investigations, said: "We make applications through the National Anti-Fraud Network to identify the people and organisations behind telephone numbers that we're investigating as part of our sizeable remit to work for the national trading standards e-crime team, the regional trading standards Scambuster team and local consumer fraud.

"None of the applications relate in any way to the interception of messages between individuals."

All fire authorities and ambulance services in the region reported that they did not use the powers.

National lead on data communications, Deputy Chief Constable Richard Berry, said: "While we respect the court's process of judgement and acknowledge the European Convention on Human Rights considerations inherent within it, we have always felt that, in exceptional circumstances, the use of retained data is essential in combating serious and organised crime, protecting the public and ensuring national security.

"It is also a useful tool in gaining intelligence on those at the head of criminal endeavours who frequently stay at arm's length from the commission of offences.

"We remain convinced that there is a significant role for communications interception and the acquisition of data communications in keeping the public safe, and our commitment to balancing that with our legal and human rights duties remains equally strong."

A spokesman for Northumbria Police said; "Our ultimate aim is the safety of the public and this is one of many ways we can gather information to help deal with those people causing most harm in our communities.

"It's important for the public to have confidence that such methods are appropriate and proportionate. Ripa authority is not entered into lightly and rigorous processes are in place leading to it being granted."

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