“If you’ve nothing to hide then you’ve nothing to fear” is often trotted out in the debate around privacy and secrecy. Superficially it seems reasonable but even with a modicum of critical thinking, the adage becomes trite and flawed. However, even if you did believe that “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” was reasonable, then the latest report from the British 2011 Annual Report of the Interception of Communications Commissioner (.pdf) ought to give food for thought.
The report covers the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) which includes the postal service, telephony and electronic forms of communication, and can be carried out for both law enforcement and national security purposes. There are two distinct areas, the first being the interception of communications and the second being the acquisition of communications data. Simplistically, the first area is about directly listening in on a communication and the second is about who, when and where a communication took place.
In 2011, the total number of lawful interception warrants for the UK was 2911, and this all seems quite reasonable, given the population of the UK (60-odd million). However, in amongst the successful security operations, we also find that the security and associated agencies made 42 mistakes (1.4%), usually through typographic errors. In all instances, the error was discovered before the intercept took place or else all the material associated with intercept was destroyed.
Communication data requests cover information about communications, mainly subscriber data, service use data and traffic data, rather than the content of the communication itself. There were 494 078 communication data requests in 2011, an 11% decrease on the previous year. As you might guess, there were a few errors there too, with 895 mistakes being reported. Although this represents an error rate of only 0.18%, I’m sure it will be of little comfort to the two wholly innocent individuals who were arrested by the police because of these mistakes. Again typographic errors in the transcriptions of phone numbers or IP addresses were largely to blame but of additional concern was that nearly 100 of the errors were identified by auditors and weren’t recognised at the time of the requests.
If you think that because you’ve nothing to hide then you’ve nothing to fear, think again. You’ve everything to fear from the transposed digit, the wrong post code look-up and the minimum-wage flunky copying and pasting from the wrong records.
Probably not what you were worried about at all.