The Powers

Certain organisations can gather information covertly using investigatory powers.

Investigatory powers are used only for specific purposes, including the detection or prevention of crime, for reasons of national security, if there is a threat to life or to protect the economic wellbeing of the UK.

Investigatory powers include covert surveillance, the interception of communications, equipment interference, the acquisition of communications data and the use of covert human intelligence sources. Some powers, such as interception and equipment interference, can be exercised in bulk. Definitions of the various powers can be found at the bottom of this page.

What is the difference between bulk and targeted powers?

Bulk powers can only be used by the security and intelligence agencies. They enable them to investigate known, high-priority threats and to identify emerging threats from individuals previously unknown to them.

The law provides for the use of bulk powers for the purposes of:

  • Interception
  • Acquisition of Communications Data
  • Equipment Interference

These powers allow for the collection of large volumes of data, primarily relating to people who are not of intelligence interest but also likely to include data relating to terrorists and serious criminals. Robust safeguards govern access to this data to ensure it is only examined where is it necessary and proportionate to do so.

Targeted powers are more focused than bulk powers. Their use must satisfy a necessity and proportionality test for the individuals whose data is to be acquired.

Targeted powers may still authorise the acquisition of a large volume of data, provided this is necessary and proportionate for an authorised purpose (such as the prevention of serious crime or national security).

Authorisation of investigatory powers

Use of the most intrusive powers is authorised by our Judicial Commissioners using the double-lock process. Use of other powers, such as directed surveillance and the use of covert human intelligence sources (i.e. informants) are internally authorised by the public authority. The acquisition of communications data by law enforcement agencies and some other public authorities, is authorised under delegated authority from the Investigatory Powers Commissioner by specially trained IPCO staff.

This table outlines which investigatory powers require the approval of a Judicial Commissioner using the double-lock process:

The PowersJudicial Commissioner
Approval Required
Bulk Communications DataYesJudicial Commissioner approval is required in all cases.
Targeted Communications DataNo*Judicial Commissioner approval only required to identify or confirm journalistic sources.

Applications for law enforcement are approved by the Office for Communications Data Authorisations.
Bulk Equipment InterferenceYesJudicial Commissioner approval is required in all cases.
Targeted Equipment InterferenceYesJudicial Commissioner approval is required, except in urgent cases.
Bulk InterceptionYesJudicial Commissioner approval is required in all cases.
Targeted InterceptionYesJudicial Commissioner approval is required, except in urgent cases.
Bulk Personal DatasetsYesJudicial Commissioner approval is required in all cases.
Covert Human Intelligence SourcesNo*Judicial Commissioner approval is required to deploy an undercover officer for more than 12 months only. Approval must be given in advance.

Judicial Commissioner approval is required if the applicant seeks to acquire legally privileged material.
Intrusive SurveillanceYesJudicial Commissioner approval is required, except in urgent cases.
Property InterferenceNo*Judicial Commissioner approval is required for law enforcement to use this power in intrusive settings only (e.g. a private residence or office).

Judicial Commissioner approval is required if the applicant seeks to acquire confidential material.

Judicial Commissioner approval is not required in urgent cases.

* Although approval is not generally required, there are exceptions to this as explained in the “Details” column.

In some circumstances, Judicial Commissioners must formally be notified of certain authorisations made by public authorities.

For example, under section 32C of RIPA, as amended by the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Act 2021, public authorities must notify a Judicial Commissioner of the authorisation or cancellation of a Criminal Conduct Authorisation within seven days of the public authority making the decision.

A Judicial Commissioner does not have the power to quash the authorisation but can make comments on the decision which must then be considered by the public authority submitting the notification.

Definitions of the Powers

Bulk Personal Data

Bulk personal datasets are sets of personal information about a large number of individuals, for example, an electoral roll or telephone directory. Although the data held is on a large group of people, analysts will only actually look at data relating to a minority who are of interest for intelligence purposes.

Communications Data

Communications data is the ‘who’, ‘where’, ‘when’ and ‘how’ of a communication but not its content. It enables the identification of the caller, user, sender or recipient of a phone call, text message, internet application or email (together with other metadata), but not what was said or written. In addition to electronic communications it also covers postal services, enabling the identification of a sender or recipient of a letter or parcel.

Covert Human Intelligence Source

A Covert Human Intelligence Source (informally referred to as a “CHIS”) is an informant or an undercover officer. They support the functions of certain public authorities by providing intelligence covertly. A CHIS under the age of 18 is referred to as a Juvenile CHIS.

Another type of CHIS is known as a “relevant source”. This is the term used to describe staff from a designated law enforcement agency that are trained to act as undercover operatives and are subject to an enhanced authorisation and oversight regime.

A CHIS may be authorised to participate in criminal conduct in specific circumstances, namely in the interests of national security; for the purpose of preventing or detecting crime or of preventing disorder; or in the interests of the economic well-being of the United Kingdom.

Directed Surveillance

This is surveillance that is covert but not carried out in a residence or private vehicle. It could include the covert monitoring of a person’s movements, conversations and other activities.

Equipment Interference

Equipment interference is the process by which an individual’s electronic equipment may be interfered with to obtain information or communications. Activity could include remote access to a computer or covertly downloading a mobile phone’s contents.


Interception is the process that makes the content of a communication available to someone other than the sender or recipient. This could include listening to telephone calls or opening and reading the contents of a person’s letters or emails.

Intrusive Surveillance

This is surveillance which is carried out, for example, using eavesdropping devices in residential premises or in private vehicles. It may involve the covert presence of a listening device to capture conversations and ensure that the individual being observed is unaware that surveillance is taking place.

Property Interference

Property Interference is the covert interference with physical property, but also covers wireless telegraphy. This may be for the purpose of conducting a covert search or trespassing on land. For example, police may trespass to covertly install a listening device in a person’s house.

Section 7 of the Intelligence Services Act

Section 7 of the Intelligence Services Act 1994 enables the Foreign Secretary to authorise activity by the intelligence agencies outside the UK that would otherwise be unlawful under domestic law.

Have a question?

Send us a message and we will get in touch as soon as possible

Get in touch

Follow us on Twitter to keep up to date with IPCO

Check our FAQs for answers to commonly asked questions

Read our FAQs