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Statistics and Interception

Our beloved Home Office are keen to persuade us that their regime of interception is effective. They regularly quote figures to support their position. An example again was a suggestion, repeated in the RIP debate, that

'about two thousand warrants were issued over two years, and that they led to about a thousand arrests for serious crimes'.

First, I have no doubt that such warrants do assist the police, and that their proper use is to be applauded. Nevertheless, when quoting figures to us, our representatives have a duty not to mislead. When they know that the figures they quote are misleading, not just in the general sense that all figures mislead, but that they are so weakly based that they make an unsustainable point appear strong, then they know they are misleading us. At that point the use of the figures is unacceptable.

Why are they so unhelpful?

The figures given are defined so very widely as to be useless. They sound as if they mean something, until you check what might also be true at the same time.

The following statements are fully consistent with the statement related above:

  1. Not one conviction followed such a warrant. They led to a thousand people being falsely arrested.
  2. Not one charge followed.
  3. There were many arrests but none were causally connected with the warrants
  4. A thousand completely innocent people had their phones tapped.

Of course, these are likely to be the extremes of what the statements could mean, and we hope that in practice the truth is somewhat better. But hope is all that it can be, since the powers that be will not tell us any more. Remember always that the people wo issue such statements are clever people. They are entirely aware of e ambiguity of what they say and of the likelihood that it will mislead.

Another element is that such warrants, under both IOCA and RIP, do not directly generate evidence. The product of interception, taped and transcribed telephone calls are not admissible in evidence. They are used in intelligence gathering - snooping.

Under RIP there is real reason to anticipate that such warrants will continue to increase in number rapidly, and the current proliferation of communications facilities will continue that trend.

By far the greatest quantity of interception of UK communications traffic takes place via the US signals intelligence base at Menwith Down in North Yorkshire. Here vast quantities of communications data can be and no doubt are routinely intercepted and checked for 'interest'. Such information is exported direct to the US. It is therefore completely outwith our own regualtory system. In practice however, our intelligence services have access to this material. Thus statistics about what we intercept are doubly misleading. The interception has simply been out-sourced. They provide figures of the utmost dubiety about the interceptions we make, and by ommission, mislead into suggesting that that is the nly interception they have access to.

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18 October 2013 316 18 October 2013