Home Secretaries down the ages always say that when they sign a warrant that allows the authorities to intercept the content of a communication, they consider the matter very seriously. And in fact Section 5 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) requires the Secretary of State not to issue an interception warrant unless he believes, that the warrant is proportionate and necessary either (a) in the interests of national security; or (b) for the purpose of preventing or detecting serious crime; or (c) for the purpose of safeguarding the economic well-being of the United Kingdom. In addition, Section 10 of RIPA allows the Secretary of State to modify the provisions of any previously signed interception warrant.
So if you were Home Secretary, how long would it take for you to satisfy yourself that a warrant was necessary and proportionate? I reckon it is at least about 10-15 minutes to mull over the details of a new warrant and say 1-3 minutes to refresh one’s memory in relation to a modified warrant. This is especially the case as a warrant, according to Section 8, relates to “one person as the interception subject” or “a single set of premises”.
As with my comments concerning access to communications data (see the blog of 9th September), a “person” means “individual” or “organisation”. Section 8 of RIPA thus allows a single interception warrant to refer to one specific individual (e.g. Fred Bloggs), or one specific organisation (e.g. Royal Bank of Scotland) or a “single set of premises” (e.g. properties within 100 yards of Canary Wharf Underground Station). The point of these examples is to show that a single warrant could relate to many individuals and one would expect that the more expansive the warrant, the more time (care) the Home Secretary takes.
Helpfully, the latest Annual Report of the Interception of Communications Commissioner shows that there were 1508 new warrants signed last year and 5344 modifications. This means that each warrant can be expected, after signing, to be modified, on average, about 3 or 4 times. There is no explanation in the Commissioner’s Annual Report as to what comprises a modification, but clearly it could be something as simple as a change of phone number.
Now pause for a moment. Assume 225 working days per year – this would mean the Home Secretary signs, on average, five or six new warrants per day (say 60 mins) and, on average, about 24 modifications per day (say another 24 minutes being briefed ). So if our time-frames mentioned in the above are more or less correct, the Home Secretary is having a little warrant signing ceremony each working day that lasts around an hour to an hour and a half.
Is it credible that a very busy Cabinet Minister spends his or her time like this – every working day? Of course not. This in turn means that the Commissioner’s published statistics provide evidence that the system of regulation that is supposed to protect our communications is fundamentally flawed.