Secret services blasted for 'shockingly high' numbers of individual privacy breaches


Deputy Political Editor

The security services came under fire tonight for the “shockingly high” number of times that individuals’ privacy was breached because of bureaucratic blunders by officers.

The failings were exposed by Sir Mark Waller, the intelligence services commissioner, who listed a series of mistakes by MI5, MI6, GCHQ and Government departments.

Sir Mark examined 318 warrants authorising covert surveillance and undercover operations last year, around one in six of those issued in 2013.

He uncovered errors in 33, all of which he attributed to human error which had led to “unacceptable” invasions of privacy.

In a report to David Cameron, he said he was satisfied the mistakes were not deliberate and the security services were complying with the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.

But Rachel Robinson, the policy officer for Liberty, said: “The spooks’ shockingly high error rate makes a mockery of people’s privacy.

“That they have supposedly complied with the rusting provisions of RIPA, but may well have fallen foul of human rights protections, is further proof of the need for a total overhaul of our outdated surveillance laws.”

The Liberal Democrat MP Julian Huppert described the findings as “very alarming”. He said: “It is clear safeguards are not working as they are supposed to, and on several occasions this allowed the agencies to monitor people without authorisation.”

He added: “Intercepting people’s private conversations is a very intrusive power, and while it is necessary in some cases, it should never be happening without authorisation.”

Sir Mark examined 19 mistakes made by MI5, of which 11 occurred because officers did not obtain the correct paperwork, while six were classified as “procedural errors”. One occurred when wrong information was inputted into computer systems and one because authorisation for an operation was cancelled before listening equipment was removed.

Sir Mark said: “In most instances I was satisfied with the answers but still discussed the errors during my inspection and made clear that any error, but especially those which led to intrusion into privacy, were not acceptable.”

There were 10 mistakes by MI6, all of which resulted in “intrusions into privacy to some degree”, but none were deliberate.

Six were described as “procedural errors”, three because the correct paperwork was not obtained and one where the wrong information was added to a computer system.

Three mistakes were made by the GCHQ listening post in Cheltenham, of which two were “procedural errors” and one was an inputting mistake.

The Home Office made an error in processing an MI5 warrant by getting the date wrong, while the Ministry of Defence made two mistakes.

Sir Mark urged the agencies to apply a “test of proportionality” before approving any operation were privacy could be invaded – and to make clear the justification for the move in the wording of warrants.

In a written statement to MPs, Mr Cameron said: “Sir Mark’s report sets out a number of instances in which human error has resulted in regrettable administrative errors. In these instances the commissioner has satisfied himself that these errors were not deliberate and has suggested changes to ensure they are not repeated.”

But Emma Carr, acting director of Big Brother Watch, said: “The current oversight by the Intelligence Services Commissioner is weak and his accountability to Parliament and the public is almost non-existent.”

She said: “A part-time commissioner with one member of staff cannot reasonably provide adequate oversight of the use of intrusive surveillance powers, which is highlighted by only 17 per cent of warrants being checked.”

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