UK police requests communication data every two minutes

A new report from civil liberties group Big Brother Watch reveals that UK police forces request communications data every two minutes, with this data typically entailing the who, when, where of any text, email, phone call or web search.

Big Brother Watch found that police forces made 733,237 requests for communications data – working out as one request every 2 minutes – between 2012 and 2014. Only one in 25 of requests were rejected.

However, the report also highlights that there is “clear disparity” in the number of requests being made and the internal approval system between police forces. For instance, Police Scotland (62,075) made less than half the number of requests made by the Metropolitan Police (177,287). Yet Police Scotland had only 1.7 percent refused whilst the Metropolitan Police had 18 percent refused.

Metropolitan Police (177,287) made the highest number of requests in the country and had 18 percent refused. In comparison, West Midlands Police (99,444) made the second highest number of refused, yet had only 1.35 percent refused. Essex Police (19,541) made the seventh highest number of requests in the country and had 28 percent of requests turned down. In comparison, Northumbria Police (21,345) made the fourth highest number of refused in the country yet only 0.3 percent of requests were rejected.

Big Brother Watch warned that with this disparity, and new legislation due to give new powers to police and intelligence agencies, there will be a need for more transparency and standardisation on such requests.

“If police forces persist with calls for greater access to our communications, procedures will need to be standardised, transparency about the process published and independent judicial approval brought in as part of the authorisation procedure to ensure that requests for Communications Data are always necessary and proportionate” said the group, which has urged police to publish transparency reports, called for more judicial approval and new definitions on communications data. 

Renate Samson, CEO of Big Brother Watch, said in an email to journalists:  “Modern policing and the use of technology in investigating crime should be more transparent.

“We are repeatedly told that Communications Data plays a significant role in modern policing, yet the reports' findings pose serious questions about the internal approval process which differs from force to force. 

“With police forces making over 730,000 requests for Communications Data in the past three years, political mutterings of diminishing access to our communications are clearly overstated.
 
“If greater access to our communications, clearer internal procedures is to be granted, increased transparency and independent judicial approval should be introduced as standard.
 
“Until these safeguards exist, the public will have little confidence that the powers to access their communications are being used only when it is truly necessary and proportionate.”