U.K. Police Make Two Communications Data Requests Per Minute

A report based on Freedom of Information requests has found British police forces approved 93 percent of requests.

data requests

By Matthew Broersma

British police forces made, on average, nearly one request for communications data every two minutes from the beginning of 2012 to the beginning of this year, according to newly published data based in Freedom of Information (FoI) requests.

A total of 733,237 requests for such data—including persons involved in communications such as telephone calls, text messages, emails and Web searches, time and place, but not its content—were made by police over the period, averaging 670 requests per day or 28 per hour, according to Big Brother Watch, which received data from all but one of the U.K.'s police forces.

Few Requests Denied

In 2014 alone, the forces made 250,000 applications, the campaign group found.

Police must currently submit such requests internally before contacting the holder of the data, such as a telecommunications company or Internet service provider.

Only 54,164 of the requests, or 7.4 percent, were denied, with 92.6 percent approved, Big Brother Watch said.

The group argued police should be required to publish transparency reports, and said judicial approval should be involved.

"This report shows that the police are continuing to access vast amounts of data on citizens," the group said, adding that such data can "paint a vivid and intrusive picture of our lives."

Twenty-six of the 37 forces showed numbers of requests on the rise, with only 11 reporting falling numbers. The Metropolitan Police made the highest number of requests over the period, at 177,287, followed by West Midlands Police with 99,444 and Police Scotland with 62,075. Thames Valley Police made the lowest number of requests at 17,562.

Police 'out of control'

Essex Police refused the highest proportion of requests, 28 percent of 19,541 in total, while Cheshire Constabulary refused the lowest proportion, seven in all, or 0.1 percent of a total of 5,848.

Conservative former shadow home secretary David Davis told The Guardian that the report showed that police access to data is "out of control."

The Home Office, however, said police and government powers to obtain communications data were "absolutely vital" to protecting the public and ensuring national security.

"This information helps to disrupt terrorist plots, smash criminal networks and keep us safe and it is a government priority to ensure our legislation is updated to deal with changing threats and evolving technologies," the Home Office said in a statement.

Snooper's Charter

The report follows the re-introduction of the controversial Investigatory Powers Bill in May's Queen's Speech. Known as the "Snooper's Charter," the bill would extend police and GCHQ access to communications data.

Late last week Eris Industries, a provider of industrial cryptography products, warned of a "mass exodus of tech companies and financial services firms" from the United Kingdom if the bill is passed into law, and said it would be temporarily relocating its offices to New York City until it receives "further clarity" on the bill's provisions.

The company said its own products would be compromised by a requirement in the bill to include back-doors in cryptography products that can be accessed by government agencies, and urged those opposing the law to sign a petition against it from the Open Rights Group.