UK police forces are accessing people’s stored communications without their knowledge, according to an investigation
Police are using loopholes in UK surveillance laws to gain access to people’s voicemails, texts and emails, according to an investigation by The Times.
The newspaper has discovered a number of forces are obtaining ‘production orders’ that allow them to gain access to communications that have been restored and currently in storage without a warrant.
To access live communications, such as phone calls, police require a warrant from the home secretary under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA). This process is controlled by the interception of communications commissioner, who has no power over production orders.
These are granted by a circuit judge who needs to be satisfied that an offence has been committed and that it is in the public interest for the police to gain access. The level of seniority needed to give permission to see such an order varies according to each police force.
The Times found that Northumbria Police had obtained 72 production orders over a three year period, with Merseyside and Thames Valley police securing 25 and 6 respectively. However West Midlands police obtained 329 such orders, leading legal experts to suggest the process was being abused as no single force could have so many serious cases.
Many mobile customers have no idea their communications are being intercepted unless it is deemed suitable for evidence, with many messages simply handled and disposed of if it is not of interest.
However police have also been accused of using RIPA, intended to aid the fight against terrorism, to access the phone records of journalists in order to detect their sources. Home Secretary Theresa May has ruled that such laws should be tightened so they are only used to investigate serious crime.
These latest revelations are likely to intensify the ongoing debate around state-sponsored surveillance programmes, sparked by the whistle-blower Edward Snowden, who disclosed the existence of several such operations last year.
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