Report published on UK use of covert powers

Published on 06 January 2022

The Investigatory Powers Commissioner, Sir Brian Leveson, has published his Annual Report on the use of covert investigatory powers by public authorities.

The report covers activity carried out by the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office (IPCO) throughout 2020. It details the first full year for Sir Brian as Investigatory Powers Commissioner, who took up the role in October 2019.

IPCO independently oversees the use of investigatory powers, ensuring they are used in accordance with the law and in the public interest. The Report outlines IPCO’s oversight of the use of these covert powers by more than 600 public bodies, including UK intelligence agencies, police forces and local councils. Inspection findings and recommendations are documented in the report, alongside errors and breaches.

The report also includes details of activities conducted by the Office for Communications Data Authorisations (OCDA), also under the authority of the Investigatory Powers Commissioner.

Sir Brian Leveson, the Investigatory Powers Commissioner, said:

“I am pleased to say that, once again, this report demonstrates high levels of compliance with the relevant legislation across the range of organisations we oversee.

“There are improvements to be made but overall considerable measures have been taken to maintain the appropriate use of investigatory powers.

“Covid-19 has had a significant impact on both IPCO and OCDA. With the particular help of our temporary Judicial Commissioners, and with commitment and flexibility from everyone across both organisations, we have been able to adapt our ways of working to ensure robust authorisation and oversight regimes continued throughout 2020.”

The IPC keeps under regular review the information that is provided in the Annual Report to ensure that the work of IPCO and OCDA is as transparent as possible.  This year, the report provides a full overview of the use of The Principles in its first year of implementation; reasons have been given for OCDA’s refusals of applications for communications data; and additional detail has been shared about the use of communications data where journalistic source material might be involved.

The report shows that, in general, recommendations from our inspections have been implemented by public authorities. There is a growing level of understanding about the compliance challenges documented in previous Annual Reports and significant investment has been made into processes, structures and governance.

As expected, issues continue in certain areas of work. Requests for warrants have at times lacked detail, data has been stored beyond given timeframes and human error has led to visits by police at incorrect addresses. IPCO makes specific recommendations when it comes across such issues at inspections throughout the year.

Other key points in the 2020 report include:

  • As with IPCO’s findings in 2018 and 2019, drug-related offences were the most common offence for which communications data was requested by law enforcement agencies in 2020.
  • There were 29 serious error investigations in 2020, four of which involved significant harm. However, the Error Reduction Strategy (produced by the National Police Chief’s Council Data Communications Group in conjunction with IPCO) is proving effective and has contributed to a fall in the number of errors made around internet protocol address resolutions, from 506 in 2019 to 109 in 2020.
  • For the UK intelligence community, there were substantially fewer errors reported in 2020 than in 2019. Whilst this may, in part, be as a result of agreed, amended short-term arrangements with the intelligence community during the early months of the pandemic, those arrangements specifically ensured that there was no delay in the reporting of serious errors.
  • For the first time since 2017, the use of covert human intelligence sources (CHIS) by law enforcement agencies has increased, from 1,866 authorisations in 2019 to 2,086 in 2020.
  • Of the 2,137 CHIS authorisations granted across all public authorities, only three related to juveniles. None of these were under the age of 16 at the time authorisation was granted.
  • Outstanding inspections of local authorities were completed by IPCO in 2020 despite the pandemic.
  • Certain public authorities acted on specific IPCO recommendations and positively changed their ways of working. For example, Greater Manchester Police purchased software to support their use of investigatory powers and employed experienced staff in key roles, and Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service introduced a new policy framework and set up regional units to advise on covert activity.
  • OCDA became fully operational on 13 January 2020 and applications to OCDA for communications data authorisations more than trebled from 2019 to 2020. A total of 226,383 applications were received in 2020, compared to 71,610 in 2019.
  • During the initial lockdown period in April, OCDA encountered a 4% decrease in the number of applications received. However, with lockdown restrictions in place and traditional surveillance options being limited, OCDA recognised that communications data became an even more important tactic that authorities utilised as part of ongoing investigations.

The Investigatory Powers Commissioner is committed to being transparent and material on oversight processes that can be made public is published for public scrutiny.

IPCO’s oversight is twofold. First, Judicial Commissioners independently review applications from public authorities to use the most intrusive investigatory powers. Secondly, a dedicated Inspectorate within IPCO checks that all the powers are used in accordance with the law.

Reports on covert activity are submitted to the Prime Minister annually.

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