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Only Real Transparency Can Build Public Trust in How Surveillance Powers Are Used

25/06/2015 15:06 BST | Updated 25/06/2016 10:59 BST

The Evening Standard's front page investigation on how the Metropolitan Police Service's (MPS) Communication's Intelligence Unit (CIU) operates could hardly have been more timely. Just a few weeks ago David Anderson QC, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation published his report into the subject and today MPs are debating both the report and the wider issue of investigatory powers.

The article itself manages to be both encouraging and disturbing. Whilst it is good to see more information coming out about what surveillance powers law enforcement and intelligence agencies have it also highlights just how little we know about how they are used.

One of the CIU's most important roles is to act as a 'gatekeeper' for the Met's Communications Data requests. Communications Data (the who, where, when and how of a communication) is an incredibly powerful tool for tackling crime. But equally it can also be very intrusive, a fact that has been acknowledged by a range of organisations; including the Intelligence and Security Committee. So whilst we at Big Brother Watch recognise its importance in a wide range of investigations we also see a real need for far more transparency.

The need for more information is given greater urgency by the words of Commander Richard Martin, head of intelligence and covert policing at the Met. In the article Commander Martin states that Communications Data is now routinely used in almost every criminal investigation.

Recently Big Brother Watch published our latest report on the subject, which bears out the above comment. It found that UK police forces had requested access to Communications Data over 700,000 times in three years: 28 times every hour (with 96% of requests being approved).

It would be unthinkable for other controversial police powers to be subject to such limited transparency. Detailed information is published annually on the use of stop and search powers. It includes the number of people that have been stopped and searched, the reasons for the action and the number of times it resulted in an arrest. This means that when the usefulness of this tactic, as well as the concerns which surround it, are debated there is a real body of evidence to draw on. The same cannot be said for the use of Communications Data.

Our report called for a number of improvements to be made to open up the current system to further scrutiny. The measures included publishing detailed, force by force transparency reports to show exactly how these powers are used and who they affect. Currently technology companies publish information on how many requests governments have made for customer data. When UK citizens can learn more about how law enforcement powers are used from these companies than the police forces themselves it is clear that something has to change.

We also proposed modifications to how requests for Communications Data are approved. Instead of each stage being internal we argued that the final say should rest with a judge. This would give the entire process an added layer of scrutiny as well as allowing for greater transparency.

In the final part of the article Commander Martin speaks of his desire to make people understand that surveillance powers are being used "in the right manner" and to gain their confidence. There is only one way to do this and that is to properly inform the public about how the police are actually using the powers.

In reality this isn't about trying to limit what the police can access or to frustrate their attempts to keep us safe. What it is about is ensuring that when MPs come to debate these vital topics they have the information they need to be able to properly draft effective legislation. Even more importantly it's about making sure that people can trust that the police are working in their best interests and the only real way to do that is to tell them more about what is being done.