Bob Crew is a former Times legal journalist and Financial Times business journalist in London and, in this article, he investigates the relationship between telecoms and surveillance law, not only in Britain, but globally.

How Often is Your Phone Snooped On?

Wherever you are in this world, you can bet that your smartphone or other phone is being snooped on by the authorities, as well as your emails and texts – by the police, government and local authorities (town halls!).

You can bet that telecoms companies are monitoring your call numbers, texts and email addresses and handing over records of them to the police, as and when required, and that the police and/or other public authorities will have been put up to it by your government or the government in whichever country you happen to find yourself.

This is happening everywhere and not least in Britain.

The question is not, are you being monitored and snooped on, but if not, why not, and if so, how often, by whom and for what purpose?

As we shall see in this article, if you are an innocent person, suspected of nothing in particular, you may very well be snooped on regardless of your innocence.

It’s the luck of the draw!

Big Brother is Watching You

Whether you are in Communist China or some other dictatorial country or territory, or the Democratic West, you and your phone, your emails and your texts are all considered fair game by the government, police and whichever public authority is interested to snoop on you for whatever reason.

George Orwell’s “Big Brother’ – from his prophetic 1940s novel 1984 – is watching you big time!

If you haven’t read the novel, go read it, it’s a great read that was way ahead of its time and written off as nonsense once upon a distant time.

The British public knows all this for a fact because it has the benefit of transparency on this matter, having appointed a public watchdog to keep an eye on this – currently Sir Anthony May, the British government’s Interception of Communications Commissioner (Sir Paul Kennedy previously) – and also to release figures and answer questions about it, some of the latest figures of which have estimated that British phones and emails are being snooped on every minute of the day, as a result of 525,000 applications to legally snoop having been granted last year, resulting in only 661 snooping errors in which the wrong people – innocent people – got monitored at the wrong telephone numbers and email addresses.

Telecoms Companies Working With Police

One would have expected more than 661 snooping errors, so let’s hope that these figures are accurate. They are bad enough, but let’s hope they are not worse than they appear.

The British police are reportedly receiving a staggering 10,000 communications records per week from telecoms companies that show all the telephone numbers and email addresses of people they have identified as suspects, correctly or otherwise, and the police have the power to do this under the Regulation of Investigation of Powers Act (RIPA), ordering the telecoms companies to hand over their call logs to them. Predictably, this is keeping the in-house lawyers of these companies busy!

Whilst the police and the companies in question are not empowered to read the content of personal emails and texts, they need watching by a watchdog just in case they do!

And it is hard to imagine that they do not read the content, accidentally on purpose, or otherwise, so this remains a grey area.

The situation in the United States, Canada, South America, Europe, Israel, Australia, Africa, India, Pakistan, Japan and elsewhere will be very similar, except to say that, in some of the less democratic or less transparent of these countries and/or states, the public will not know about this and in many cases will not have the right to know.

Legal Surveillance Versus Telecoms Surveillance

In Britain, there is, in addition to the aforesaid Sir Anthony May, a Chief Surveillance Commissioner, called Sir Christopher Rose, and between the two of them these surveillance matters are supposed to be properly legalised, conducted and controlled and also made transparent in the public interest – but don’t expect such niceties in a goodly number of other parts of the world in which you may find yourself!

In undemocratic countries there will not, of course, be any acts of parliament authorising and clearly governing how people’s phone calls, emails and texts can be snooped on by the great and the good for the public good. In Britain, police forces all over the country have been ordered by the aforementioned Interception of Communications Minister to disclose full details of how they have been spying on journalists, notably the Mail on Sunday newspaper in London.

Perhaps even on telecoms, computer and smartphone magazines!

Why not?

But Chief Surveillance Officer, Sir Christopher Rose, personally appointed by the Prime Minister, is without doubt good news.

He is a former High Court Judge, educated at Leeds and Oxford universities, who was the Lord Justice of Appeal from 1992 until 2006 and he is now Chief Surveillance Officer until June 30th, 2015. He has been a very outspoken judge who has been critical of the poor way in which criminal acts of parliament have been written, implemented and enforced, and not least for surveillance operations carried out by law enforcement agencies.

So, as we see, for every advance in telecommunications, mobile phones, emailing and texting, there are advances in the law to keep the former in check and put them to the right rather than the wrong uses.

Whilst international terrorism and national security is the chief concern of all this snooping activity, it’s not only the terrorists who are being snooped on, it’s others besides, including innocent people, and including the journalists who report these matters!

(c) Bob Crew

Bob Crew is a former Times and Financial Times journalist based in London. Next week he explains what happens if and when the Internet crashes.