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A report by the Guardian newspaper has suggested that Google could also face a police or Home Office investigation into whether it has violated UK communication hacking laws.

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) sets out the laws relating to lawful and unlawful interception of communications. Law enforcement agencies, including the police and MI5, can tap phone, internet or email communications to protect the UK's national security interests, prevent and detect terrorism and serious crime or to safeguard the UK's economic well-being.

Telecoms firms are allowed to unintentionally intercept communications in line with RIPA if the interception "takes place for purposes connected with the provision or operation of that service or with the enforcement, in relation to that service, of any enactment relating to the use of postal services or telecommunications services."

Under RIPA unlawful interception takes place if a person makes "some or all of the contents of the communication available, while being transmitted, to a person other than the sender or intended recipient of the communication". It also states that interception is illegal on messages stored "in a manner that enables the intended recipient to collect it or otherwise to have access to it".

Unlawful interceptors of communications and those who commission the illegal practice face the risk of prosecution. The Interception of Communications Commissioner (IoCC) currently has responsibility for RIPA and for reviewing how law enforcement agencies use their RIPA powers.

In May last year Parliament changed RIPA so that it is only legal to monitor private communications, even unintentionally, if you have a warrant or if both the sender and recipient of information agree to the monitoring. The law had previously said that you could monitor without a warrant if you had 'reasonable grounds' to believe that the parties to the communication had consented to the monitoring.

The changes granted new powers to the IoCC giving the authority the power to impose fines of up to £50,000 for unlawful interceptions. In July last year a Parliamentary committee recommended that the ICO give advice and support on UK laws on communication hacking. In its report on phone hacking the Home Affairs Committee proposed that the ICO be responsible for issuing guidance to those in danger of breaking surveillance laws or to people who think they have been victims of illegal hacking or surveillance.

Copyright © 2012, Out-Law.com

Out-Law.com is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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