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Internet surveillance led to five wrongful arrests in 2012

Security services monitoring internet communications last year wrongfully accused six UK citizens of crimes. 

The 2012 Annual Report of the Interception of Communications Commissioner reveals that 979 false reports were generated by internet and phone data last year. Despite the best efforts of authorities to recall officers once the mistakes were realised, five people ended up being wrongfully detained or accused of crimes. 

In the one remaining case, the error caused the police to visit the wrong address when looking for a child who had threatened to self-harm. 

Internet surveillance led to six wrongful arrests in 2012
The London 2012 Olympic Games caused an increase in the number of requests made for UK citizens data

Read Recombu Digital’s guide to the Communications Data BillThe former communications commissioner Sir Paul Kennedy who retired on December 31, 2012 said that in 26 per cent of cases, officers initially requesting the wrong details led to false reports and 43 per cent of the time technical errors would generate duff reports. 

Recognising that this isn’t good enough, Sir Paul’s report says: “It is important to make the point that although there is a drive to design automated systems to reduce the amount of double keying and resultant human error that occurs, it is crucial for such systems to be sufficiently tested and to be subject to ongoing data quality checks to ensure they are functioning effectively. 

“Otherwise there is a distinct possibility that the human errors will simply be replaced by technical system errors.” 

The report goes on to reveal that subsequent scrutiny of false negatives resulted in the arrest of three people. Two people were charged under the Harassment Act and one person was arrested after indecent images of children were discovered on a computer. 

Internet surveillance led to six wrongful arrests in 2012

The total number of data requests made last year also shot up from 494,078 in 2011 to 570,135. The report says that safety operations launched to ensure the London 2012 Olympic Games were safe were the main cause of this spike. Earlier this year, Microsoft revealed that the UK government had made 1,268 requests for data on Skype users in 2012, which will be reflected in the total figure above. 

While the vast majority of requests were made to prevent crime and disorder, the report doesn’t disclose why the other requests were made. Efforts are being made to work with the Home Office so that data in this area is more transparent in future reports. 

Despite the six arrests and room for greater transparency, the commissioner’s report maintains a strong oversight of data. One of the criticisms of the Communications Data Bill was that proposals dealing with false positives were vague, as were proposals for storing data. With Sir Paul’s reprt highlighting the need for greater technical finesse, the Communications Data Bill could be kicked back to the drawing board yet again until improvements are made. 

Image credit: Anonymous9000/Flickr

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