Lawful interception: The ‘Justifiable interference’ of your privacy

Now if you ask me, the words “lawful” and “interception” don’t stand in correlation. However, lawful interception has been alive and kicking for years. Governed by global treaties and state laws, it enables the lawful monitoring and scrutiny of private communications all over the world when it is considered “necessary” to do so.

In the UK, the Home Office states that it is an offence for anyone to “intentionally and without lawful authority to intercept, at any place in the United Kingdom, any communication in the course of its transmission”. But, as it turns out, under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 there are in fact a “limited” number of persons who can.

There are designated persons specified by parliament as having lawful authority to intercept communications. These designated people are the top dogs in; the Security Service, Secret Intelligence Service, GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), National Criminal Intelligence Service, The police, Customs and exercise, Defence Intelligence, and also authorities in countries outside the UK who are part of any ‘mutual assistance’ agreements with the UK.

These designated persons are able to easily access communications data such as; telephone calls records, itemized billing and records of connections to the Internet. Telecommunications service providers and internet service providers are legally obliged to hand over private communications data under this law; when interception is necessary – necessary for; the interests of national security, the purpose of preventing or detecting serious crime, or for the purpose of safe-guarding the economic-wellbeing of the UK.  These law enforcement officials can then establish; who owns a particular phone number or email account, when the communication happened, where it came from and where it was going – but not the content (supposedly).

However don’t think the content of your private communications is safe –it too can be accessed. Law enforcement agencies can obtain for “interception warrants”. These are issued by the Secretary of State, if they believe that what the action seeks to achieve is considered a “justifiable interference with an individual’s rights”.

So, what exactly does a justifiable interference of rights look like?

One such example is when during the police used tweets, posts and blackberry messages during the August riots to track and arrest suspects. British law enforcement made great use out of social media as a surveillance tool during the disorders – arresting people on the basis of messages and photos that showed their involvement. However, this is public information – not exactly interception per se.

Blackberry messenger messages on the other hand are not public. Blackberry messenger service allows users to send encrypted texts to several contacts at a time – and was a popular method of communication during the riots. Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, the company that makes BlackBerry assisted authorities by providing traffic data –information relating to the time of a message, where it was sent to and the name of the sender. Once police could pinpoint exact rioters, they could then further extend their interception into the content of messages under an interception warrant.

Now, such interception can be considered a “justifiable interference” – it was used for the purpose of detecting and preventing further serious crime. However, the law states that lawful interception is to only be used if there are no other means to obtaining the same outcome. Therefore was it justifiable? If the police had access to public messages on social networking sites, couldn’t they just of monitored them? Did they have to do both? Also, what about people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, who also happened to own a blackberry? They’re messages would have been intercepted- is that justifiable?

Perhaps what is and what is not justifiable interference is not clear enough. Or perhaps there can never be a justifiable erosion of the right to privacy at all.

BY: Rachael Davey