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UK's web super-snoop powers could be extended to councils

'We don't know what we don't know yet'

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Earlier in the joint committee hearing, the HMRC and top cops from the Metropolitan Police Authority, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Serious Organised Crime Agency gave evidence to MPs and peers in Westminster.

But when the Met's assistant commissioner Cressida Dick was quizzed earlier this week about which communications data was specifically withheld – senior spooks had described it as a "25 per cent shortfall" when it comes to current criminal investigations – she failed to provide a detailed answer.

"I'm not technically qualified and I am never myself an applicant," she said. "I can't say what data is missing."

However, when pressed on the matter, Dick added that she didn't want to publicly reveal that information because it could fall into the hands of criminals.

She further admitted that some communication service providers (CSPs) - a spurious category of online players that includes, for example, Google and Facebook - had withheld data requested by the police.

SOCA's director general Trevor Pearce told the committee that his agency had "averted 240 potential threats in the last 12 months" due to access requests to communications data being granted.

But he warned: "There are opportunities lost or not available."

Meanwhile, ACPO's assistant chief constable Gary Boatridge rejected the claims that the extension of surveillance requested within May's bill would lead to police "looking for a needle in a field of haystacks".

He said: "I wouldn't agree with that... these matters are very carefully considered."

CEOP's chief exec Peter Davies agreed, saying such an accusation "suggests speculative requests," a claim he said "goes against all my experience".

Later on during the session, Dick said that Scotland Yard took "any breach of data very seriously". She added "regretfully" there had been incidents where her officers had violated the Met's national computer database.

She insisted, however, that any access to comms data under May's proposed legislation would have much stronger protection and be more heavily controlled.

When asked about what currently happens to police staff who attempt to access comms data without putting in a formal request, the panel agreed that it would be tough for those individuals to get past the security checks in place.

Dick said it was "like different legs of a chair looking at each other".

And, it turns out, very little disciplinary action has been taken against staff abusing those powers, which according to HMRC's director of criminal investigation Donald Toon "reflects the fact that it is very tightly controlled" rather than demonstrating any incompetence among cops spying on other cops to prevent breaches. ®

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