UK report details what happens when police spying goes wrong

Surveillance is a contentious issue in the UK -- the government, police and intelligence agencies see it as a vital tool for preventing and solving serious crimes, whereas others see it as an unwelcome intrusion into their lives. The debate over whether the UK's surveillance laws are legal continues to rumble on, but a new report has shed some light on what happens when spying goes wrong. Interception of Communications Commissioner Sir Anthony May revealed today that there were 17 "serious" errors made by police or communications providers in 2014, which included the misidentification of innocent people as sex offenders.

The report noted that nine errors were down to human mistakes, with the others caused by technical system faults. In one case, police sought to trace the owner of a social media account that was used to groom a young girl. Using surveillance powers, they applied for data on the user's email address, but missed the underscore. Police then served a warrant to the residence of an innocent person's home and confiscated their computer equipment, only to find that they had no connection to the victim.

A number of errors also saw authorities incorrectly state the timezone when tracing an IP address. When IP data was used to convict a drug dealer, timings were submitted in Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) when the correct timezone was British Summer Time (BST). It meant that the results were called into question, but police were able to rely on other data to successfully prosecute the defendant.

In total, 10 of the 17 human or computer errors were linked to IP addresses, of which eight were related to investigations into the sexual exploitation of children. May notes in the report that any police action taken as a result of incorrect checks "could have devastating impact on the individuals concerned." The people targeted incorrectly had nothing to hide (a phrase often used by authorities to justify the use of surveillance tactics), but were potentially labelled as paedophiles and suffered undue stress.

Incidentally, the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014 (DRIPA), which was used by police and other agencies to procure such data, has just been struck down at the High Court. Conservative MP David Davis and Labour MP Tom Watson, represented by the Liberty human rights organisation, successfully argued that the UK's "emergency" spying laws were illegal and broke the public's right to a private life. While in the "majority" of cases, individuals were said to be "incredibly understanding" about the errors and wanted put the issue behind them, some have sought legal advice.

[Image credit: eGuidry, Flickr]