What is the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act?

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  • Written By: Henry Gaudet
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 30 May 2020
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The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act was introduced into the British parliament in 2000. The law addresses some of the advances in surveillance technology and outlines how and when surveillance and similar investigation techniques can be used, in the hopes of reconciling the government’s need for information with the citizens' human rights.

Within the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, five distinct forms of surveillance are defined. Directed surveillance, intrusive surveillance, human intelligence, communications data access and intercepted communications are each outlined, and regulations address the unique issues surrounding them. These regulations state when various information gathering techniques can be employed, which agencies are allowed to employ them and the procedure for initiating and conducting surveillance.

Directed surveillance involves following people of interest in the hopes of gathering information. Intrusive surveillance is the use of listening devices concealed in homes, workplaces, vehicles or other places where information might be gathered. Human intelligence relies on informants for data. Communications data includes information such as phone numbers dialed, locations of mobile phones, subscription details, mailing lists and similar information, but it does not include the actual messages. Emails, posts, recorded phone calls and similar messages are intercepted communications.

Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, the secretary of state may issue a warrant to intercept communications. The secretary may issue this warrant for matters of national security, public security or public health; to protect British economic well-being; or for crime prevention. This is the only section of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act that requires the issuing of a warrant.

Communications records can be released to many agencies, including the police, intelligence agencies, financial regulators and customs agencies under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. Internet service providers (ISPs) are required to fit hardware to facilitate record retrieval. Government agencies can demand access to encrypted or protected records, and the failure to do so is a criminal offense.

Ministers has been accused of rushing this act through Parliament before the Human Rights Act went into effect in October of 2000, and many people view the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act as a blow to human rights, reducing the individual’s right to privacy and protection from search and seizure. Some people are concerned that the broad powers granted to agencies under the act lend themselves to abuse, particularly by local councils and small agencies. Agencies are able to invoke articles of the act without review or oversight, adding to the concern. The hardware requirement for ISPs is another contentious point.

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