The increased concerns about terrorism, following the New York, London and Madrid events have left us with an important dilemma of balance between the police powers to actively monitor our personal data and our very basic human right to lead private uninterrupted lives. The recently revealed information, under the Freedom of Information Act, suggests that not only are the authorities using active monitoring to tackle terrorism but also access our correspondence and other personal records to fight more common types of crime.

The report reveals that between 2007 and 2010 only 0.15 per cent of applications for access to communications data were rejected by the South Yorkshire Police forces. By comparison, the Kent Police rejected over 30 per cent of all applications made by the officers. Interestingly, the application process for all forces is evaluated on a regular basis by two bodies, the Office of Surveillance Commissioner or the Interception of Communications Commissioner Office. This raises an important question as to why there are significant differences in rejection levels between the local police units if the process is handled by officers accredited by the same institutions.

The Big Brother Watch, a well-known organisation defending civil liberties and privacy, has expressed concerns for the Home Office’s plans to further expand police powers and cover even more personal information.  Nick Pickles from the Big Brother Watch stated that the current regime is highly dysfunctional and lacks of transparency. He recommends that before the government grants more powers to the police and intelligence agencies, the current legal framework should be thoroughly revised and assessed.

On the other hand, officials from the Interception of Communications Commissioner state that the procedures are adequate with the communications data being obtained lawfully and in full compliance with applicable statutory measures. They also believe that the current assessment process allows for impartial and objective decision-making in respect of individual applications.

The proposed new powers include powers to access real-time data related to phone calls, electronic communications, social media and web browsing histories. With increased campaigning against lack of consultation with the public, it has been announced that further consultation will be carried out before the new laws take effect. In addition, the Metropolitan Police has also expressed interest in real-time location tracking technology already utilised by the FBI in the US. The technology is based on a device known as IMSI catcher. The catcher allows its users to locate particular mobile phones in a targeted area. The catcher can not only track movements in real-time but also fully intercept short messages, phone calls and other data such as emails on the phone. Alarmingly, the FBI can rely on the technology without a court order. This brings a significant risk of the IMSI catchers being used for purposes other than those authorised.

The society needs to have right to participate in the decision-making regarding their own privacy. The government agencies have been known in the UK to improperly utilise the already existing powers. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act has been reportedly misused by over 800 different public bodies including the MI5, which officially confirmed making over 1,000 administrative errors only under this piece of legislation.

It is important to observe that the UK is not an exception. Australian authorities have already been provided with the increased power to intercept telecommunication records and the German government is currently contemplating passing legislation to allow police forces to hack suspects’ personal computers.