Mass surveillance in the United Kingdom

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A closed-circuit television camera at London's Heathrow Airport (2004).

The practice of mass surveillance in the United Kingdom dates back to wartime signal intelligence and pioneering code breaking. In the post-war period, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) was formed and participated in programs such as the ECHELON collaboration of five English-speaking nations. This focused on interception of electronic communications, with substantial increases in surveillance capabilities over time.

Today, the use of surveillance and mass surveillance in the UK is controlled by laws made in the UK Parliament.[1][2][3] In addition European Union data privacy law applies in the UK law. The UK exhibits governance and safeguards as well as extensive use of mass surveillance.[4][5][6]

GCHQ Tempora program[edit]

A series of media reports in 2013 revealed recent mass surveillance programs and techniques involving GCHQ such as Tempora and its component programs Mastering the Internet and Global Telecoms Exploitation.[7]

Reports and polls[edit]

A YouGov poll published on 4 December 2006, indicated that 79% of those interviewed agreed that Britain has become a 'surveillance society’ (51% were unhappy with this).[8] In 2004 the Information Commissioner, discussing the proposed British national identity database gave a warning of this, stating, "My anxiety is that we don't sleepwalk into a surveillance society."[9] Other databases causing him concern were the National Child Database (ContactPoint), the Office for National Statistics' Citizen Information Project, and the National Health Service National Programme for IT.

On 6 February 2009 a report by the House of Lords Constitution Committee, Surveillance: Citizens and the State,[10] warned that increasing use of surveillance by the government and private companies was a serious threat to freedoms and constitutional rights, stating, "The expansion in the use of surveillance represents one of the most significant changes in the life of the nation since the end of the Second World War. Mass surveillance has the potential to erode privacy. As privacy is an essential pre-requisite to the exercise of individual freedom, its erosion weakens the constitutional foundations on which democracy and good governance have traditionally been based in this country."[11]

Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000[edit]

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIP or RIPA) is an Act granting and regulating the powers of public bodies to carry out surveillance and investigation. Included is the interception of the content of telephone, Internet, and postal communications; collection of information about, but not the content of, telephone, Internet, and postal communications (type of communication, caller and called telephone numbers, Internet addresses, domain names, postal addresses, date, time, and duration); use of agents, informants, undercover officers; electronic surveillance of private buildings and vehicles; following people; and gaining access to encrypted data.[12]

RIPA allows certain public bodies:[12]

  • to demand that an ISP provide access to a customer's communications in secret;
  • to engage in mass surveillance of communications in transit;
  • to demand ISPs fit equipment to facilitate surveillance;
  • to demand that someone hand over encryption keys or passwords to protected information;
  • to monitor people's Internet activities;
  • to prevent the existence of interception warrants and any data collected from being revealed in court.

The powers granted by RIPA can be invoked by government officials on the grounds of national security, for the purposes of preventing or detecting crime or serious crime, preventing disorder, protecting public safety or health, in the interests of the economic well-being of the United Kingdom, assessing or collecting any tax, duty, levy or other imposition, contribution or charge payable to a government department, or in an emergency, preventing or mitigating death, injury, or any damage to a person’s physical or mental health. Some of the powers granted by the Act are available to a relatively short list of from 5 to 12 government bodies, while others are available to longer lists of over 40 bodies.[12]

The 2000 Act received Royal Assent on 28 July 2000 and Commencement Orders bringing provisions within this Act into force were issued between 2002 and 2012. Where prior legislation exists, the 2000 Act works in conjunction with that legislation, in particular the Intelligence Services Act 1994, the Police Act 1997, and the Human Rights Act 1998.[13] The Act has been amended several times, to both extend and restrict the powers granted.[14]

Governance of UK Agencies[edit]

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 established the Investigatory Powers Tribunal to hear complaints about surveillance by public bodies.[12] The Tribunal replaced the Interception of Communications Tribunal, the Security Service Tribunal, and the Intelligence Services Tribunal on 2 October 2000. Between 2000 and 2009 the Tribunal had upheld 4 out of the 956 complaints received.[15]

The Parliament of the United Kingdom appoints an Intelligence and Security Committee. The remit of the Committee includes oversight of intelligence and security activities and reports are made directly to Parliament.[16]

The UK also has an independent Intelligence Services Commissioner and Interception of Communications Commissioner, both of whom are former senior judges.[17]


The Justice and Security Bill, which will be voted on by the UK Parliament in 2014, will include a range of reforms to the Intelligence and Security Committee:[5]

  • The nine members of the committee will still be nominated by the Prime Minister, but the House of Commons will be allowed to veto Downing Street's suggestions. At present, Parliament has no power to block such appointments.
  • The panel will now probe recent operations by the agencies. Until now, it’s remit has merely been for “resources, policy and administration” and it has seldom looked at specific operations.
  • Officials acting for the committee will be able to enter MI5’s Thames House offices and other intelligence agency premises to inspect files and decide what the panel needs to see.
  • Agencies will be “required” to publish information unless they can obtain an permission from the Prime Minister’s and only then if handing over such details would compromise national security. Until now, the committee has only had the power to “request” information.
  • To signify the panel’s new status, its name will change to the “Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament”.

CCTV networks[edit]

A bank of seven Closed-circuit television cameras monitoring people exiting Birmingham New Street Station, a major British railway station.

The combination of CCTV and facial recognition could be considered a form of mass surveillance, but has not been widely used and has been ineffective because of the low discriminating power of facial recognition technology and the high number of false positives generated.[18] This type of system has been trialled at airports to compare faces with biometric passports, but such an application is comparable to existing identification checks at borders.[19]

The vast majority of CCTV cameras are not operated by the UK Government, but by private companies, especially to monitor the interiors of shops and businesses. According to 2009 Freedom of Information Act requests, the total number of local authority operated CCTV cameras was around 60,000 over the entirety of the UK.[20]

In 2005 the City of Westminster trialled microphones fitted next to CCTV cameras. Westminster council explained the microphones are part of an initiative to tackle urban noise and will not "be used to snoop", but comments from a council spokesman appear to imply they could capture an audio stream alongside the video stream, rather than simply reporting noise levels.[21] The trials were discontinued in 2008 with no further plans for use.[22]

A study produced by Dr. Antony Brooks of the University of Liverpool examined, as of February 2010, some cities' use of CCTV which allowed an operator who saw something illegal or troubling to speak via loudspeaker into the street; some operators also had microphones to hear audio along with the video. Dr. Brooks disputed the statistics produced supporting the relevance of the technology for the UK's major cities, stating '...the crime is merely observed, yet not prevented.'

Part 2, Chapter 1 of the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 creates a new regulation for, and instructs the Secretary of State to prepare a code of practice towards, closed-circuit television and automatic number plate recognition.[23]

The Home Office recently published a code of practice for the use of surveillance cameras by local and government authorities to help ensure it is "characterised as surveillance by consent, and such consent on the part of the community must be informed consent and not assumed by a system operator. Surveillance by consent should be regarded as analogous to policing by consent."[24]

Drone aircraft[edit]

A consortium of government agencies and the arms manufacturer BAE Systems intended to begin using drones for the surveillance of the 2012 Summer Olympics. Police forces signed on to a scheme of "surveillance, monitoring and evidence gathering" to introduce unmanned aerial vehicles "into the routine work of the police, border authorities and other government agencies" for the ­"routine" monitoring of antisocial motorists, ­protesters, agricultural thieves and fly-tippers. The drones stayed airborne for up to 15 hours with monitoring equipment such as high-definition cameras, radar devices and infrared sensors and reach heights of 20,000 feet. They could have been used for road and railway monitoring, search and rescue, event security and covert urban surveillance. Other routine uses of the drones could include combating "fly-posting, fly-tipping, abandoned vehicles, abnormal loads, waste management". To offset some of the running costs it was proposed the aircraft could undertake commercial work during spare time and selling the surveillance data to private companies.[25]

Identity cards[edit]

On 21 December 2010 the Identity Documents Act 2010 received Royal Assent.[26] The Act repealed the Identity Cards Act of 2006,[27] scrapping the mandatory ID card scheme and associated National Identity Register that had been in use on a limited or voluntary basis since November 2008, but which was never fully implemented. Foreign nationals from outside the European Union, however, continue to require an ID card for use as a biometric residence permit under the provisions of the UK Borders Act 2007 and the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009.[28][29] Although the 2010 Act ended the validity of ID cards as travel documents, no action was taken to withdraw the National Identity Cards already issued.[29] The National Identity Register was officially destroyed on 10 February 2011 when the final 500 hard drives containing the register were shredded.[30]

Internet, fixed and mobile telephone communications[edit]

In 2002 the UK government announced plans to extend the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), so that at least 28 government departments would be given powers to browse citizens' web, e-mail, telephone and fax records, without a warrant and without a subject's knowledge.[31] Public and security authorities made a total of 440,000 requests to monitor people's phone and internet use in 2005-2006.[32] In the period 11 April to 31 December 2006 the UK government issued 253,557 requests for communication data, which as defined by the RIPA includes who you phoned, when they phoned you, how long they phoned you for, subscriber information and associated addresses.[33]

Since October 2007 telecommunication companies have been required to keep records of phone calls and text messages for twelve months under the Data Retention Directive.[34] Though all telecoms firms already keep data for a period, the regulations are designed to ensure a uniform approach across the industry.[35] This has enabled the Government and other selected authorities within the UK such as Police and Councils amongst others to monitor all phone calls made from a UK landline or Mobile upon request.

In 2008 plans were being made to collect data on all phone calls, e-mails, chat room discussions and web-browsing habits as part of the Government's Interception Modernisation Programme, thought likely to require the insertion of thousands of black box probes into the country’s computer and telephone networks.[36] The proposals were expected to be included in the Communications Data Bill. The "giant database" was to include telephone numbers dialed, the websites visited, and addresses to which e-mails are sent, but not the content of e-mails or telephone conversations.[37] Chris Huhne, Liberal Democrat Home affairs spokesman, said, "The government's Orwellian plans for a vast database of our private communications are deeply worrying."[38] In November 2009, ministers confirmed that the estimated £2 billion project would proceed as planned. A consultation found that 40% of people were against the plans which would also include monitoring communications in online games.[39]

The Interception Modernisation Programme has since been renamed as the Communications Capabilities Development Programme.[40]

Some shopping centres have tracked customers through mobile phone signals. A system can tell when people enter the centre, how long they stay in a particular shop, and what route each customer takes. The system works by monitoring the signals produced by mobile handsets and then locating the phone by triangulation.[41][42]

Infections of mobile phones and computers with government-sponsored viruses (e.g., Flame) that activate microphones without users' knowledge have been used since 2006.[43][44][45]

National databases[edit]

The British Police hold records of 5.5 million fingerprints and over 3.4 million DNA samples on the National DNA Database. There is increasing use of roadside fingerprinting, using new police powers to check identity.[46] Concerns have been raised over the unregulated use of biometrics in schools, affecting young children.[47]

In 2002 the UK government announced plans to extend the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, so that at least 28 government departments would be given powers to browse citizens' web, email, telephone and fax records, without a warrant and without a subject's knowledge.[48] Public and security authorities made a total of 440,000 requests to monitor people's phone and internet use in 2005-2006.[49]

In 2004 the Information Commissioner, discussing the proposed British national identity database gave a warning when he stated, "My anxiety is that we don't sleepwalk into a surveillance society."[9] Other databases causing him concern were the National Child Database (ContactPoint), the Office for National Statistics' Citizen Information Project, and the National Health Service National Programme for IT.

The National Identity Register was destroyed on 10 February 2011. The register had been in use on a limited basis since November 2008, but was never fully implemented.[29][30]

The Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 includes several provisions related to the collection, storage, retention, and use of information in government databases, specifically:[23]

  • Part 1, Chapter 1 requires that fingerprints, footwear impressions, and DNA profiles taken from persons arrested for or charged with a minor offence be destroyed following either a decision not to charge or following acquittal; amends the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, and the Crime and Security Act 2010, relating to the retention of fingerprints; and instructs the Secretary of State to make arrangements for a "National DNA Database Strategy Board" to oversee the operation of a DNA database.
  • Part 1, Chapter 2 requires schools and colleges to obtain consent of one parent of a child under 18 before acquiring and processing the child's biometric information, gives the child rights to stop the processing of their biometric information regardless of any parental consent, and requires that if any parent of the child objects to the processing of biometric information, it must be discontinued.
  • Part 6 extends the existing Freedom of Information Act 2000 and amends the role of the Information Commissioner, including widening the rules on applying for and receiving datasets from public authorities for re-use. And, while the Information Commissioner was already independent of Government in making regulatory decisions, the Act takes steps to further enhance the day-to-day corporate and administrative independence of the Commissioner.

Overseas travel[edit]

In February 2009 it emerged that the government was planning a database to track and store records of all international travel into and out of the UK. The database would retain record of names, addresses, telephone numbers, seat bookings, travel itineraries and credit card details, which would be kept for 'no more than 10 years'.[50]


Forward Intelligence Teams have conducted mass surveillance of political and environmental protestors and of journalists. The information they gathered has been stored in the crimint database.[51]

Public transport[edit]

In London, the Oyster card payment system can track the movement of individual people through the public transport system,[52] although an anonymous option is available, while the London congestion charge uses computer imaging to track car number plates.[53]

Vehicle tracking[edit]

Across the country efforts have been increasingly under way to track closely all road vehicle movements, initially using a nationwide network of roadside cameras connected to automatic number plate recognition systems. These have tracked, recorded, and stored the details of all journeys undertaken on major roads and through city centres and the information is stored for five years.[54][55] In the longer term mandatory onboard vehicle telematics systems are also suggested, to facilitate road charging (see vehicle excise duty).

Part 2, Chapter 1 of the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 creates a new regulation for, and instructs the Secretary of State to prepare a code of practice towards, closed-circuit television and automatic number plate recognition.[23]

European Union[edit]

The UK is a member of the European Union, participates in its programs, and is subject to EU policies and directives.

The legislative body of the European Union passed the Data Retention Directive on 15 December 2005. It requires that telecommunication operators retain metadata for telephone, Internet, and other telecommunication services for periods of not less than six months and not more than two years from the date of the communication as determined by each EU member state and, upon request, to make the data available to various governmental bodies. Access to this information is not limited to investigation of serious crimes, nor is a warrant required for access.[56][57]

The INDECT Project ("Intelligent information system supporting observation, searching and detection for security of citizens in urban environment")[58] develops an intelligent urban environment observation system to register and exchange operational data for the automatic detection, recognition and intelligent processing of all information of abnormal behaviour or violence.[59][60]

The main expected results of the INDECT project are:

  • implementation of a distributed computer system that is capable of acquisition, storage and effective sharing on demand of the data
  • devices used for mobile object tracking
  • a search engine for fast detection of persons and documents based on watermarking technology used for semantic search
  • agents assigned to continuous and automatic monitoring of public resources such as CCTV, websites, Internet forums, usenet newsgroups, file servers, P2P networks and individual computer systems

The HIDE ("Homeland Security, Biometric Identification and Personal Detection Ethics") consortium, devoted to monitoring the ethical and privacy implications of biometrics and personal detection technologies and promoted by the European Commission develops ADABTS ("Automatic Detection of Abnormal Behaviour and Threats in crowded Spaces"), a low-cost pro-active surveillance system.[61]

See also[edit]


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  37. ^ "Giant database plan 'Orwellian'". BBC News. 15 October 2008. Retrieved 15 October 2008. "The government's own reviewer of anti-terror laws, Lord Carlile, said: 'The raw idea of simply handing over all this information to any government, however benign, and sticking it in an electronic warehouse is an awful idea if there are not very strict controls about it.'" 
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  51. ^ Paul Lewis; Marc Vallée (6 March 2009). "Revealed: police databank on thousands of protesters". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 10 March 2009. "Police are targeting thousands of political campaigners in surveillance operations and storing their details on a database" 
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  57. ^ "Joint letter to Cecilia Malmström, European Commissioner for Home Affairs, from Dr. Patrick Breyer and 105 additional parties", 22 June 2010.
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  61. ^ "Automatic Detection of Abnormal Behaviour and Threats in crowded Spaces (ADABTS)", HIDE FP7 Projects Dynamic Database, HIDE Project, Centre for Science, Society and Citizenship (Rome). Retrieved 17 September 2013.

External links[edit]