Office of Surveillance Commissioners (OSC) Annual RIPA Report (2015) – Key Points


The Chief Surveillance Commissioner, Sir Christopher Rose, published his final annual report on 25th June 2015. A lot of the report is typical of someone in his position who is leaving office, having a few parting moans. Then again, a £56,000 maintenance fee from the Home Office (paragraph 3.3) for a relatively simple website is well worth moaning about)!

The report covers the period from 1st April 2014 to 31st March 2015 and should be read by public authorities, especially councils, who conduct surveillance under Part 2 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) (Directed Surveillance, Intrusive Surveillance and the deployment of a Covert Human Intelligence Source (CHIS)). It details statistics relating to the use of these tactics and information about how the Office of Surveillance Commissioners (OSC) conducts its oversight role.

Non-law enforcement agencies (including councils) authorised Directed Surveillance on 2207 occasions in the reporting period. The Department for Work and Pensions completed 25% of these. This continues a downward trend over the last few years. Last year there were 4,412 of such authorisations. Much of this downward trend is due to the continued impact of the changes, which took effect on 1st November 2012; namely magistrates’ approval for council surveillance and a new six-month threshold test for Directed Surveillance.

A total of 373 authorisations were presented to a magistrate for approval under The Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 during the reporting period. Just 17 were rejected. The Commissioner continues to be sceptical about the need for the changes saying, “I remain to be convinced of the value of this additional approval procedure which, obviously, promotes delay.”

The Commissioner, just like in his previous report, has expressed concern about the level of RIPA knowledge amongst magistrates:

“I have good reason to believe that training provision for magistrates in relation to RIPA and The Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 has been minimal and several councils have ended up providing this themselves to enable the new procedure to work effectively: this is commendable but not, presumably, what Parliament contemplated.” (Para 5.27)

Social Networks

The Commissioner advises caution when conducting online investigations especially where this involves examining social networking sites. A RIPA authorisation may be required in some cases:

“5.42 Perhaps more than ever, public authorities now make use of the wide availability of details about individuals, groups or locations that are provided on social networking sites and a myriad of other means of open communication between people using the Internet and their mobile communication devices. I repeat my view that just because this material is out in the open, does not render it fair game. The Surveillance Commissioners have provided guidance that certain activities will require authorisation under RIPA or RIP(S)A and this includes repetitive viewing of what are deemed to be “open source” sites for the purpose of intelligence gathering and data collation.”

From the Commissioner’s comments at paragraph 5.44 it seems advisable that councils should have in place a corporate policy and training programme on the use of social media in investigations:

“Many local authorities have not kept pace with these developments. My inspections have continued to find instances where social networking sites have been accessed, albeit with the right intentions for an investigative approach, without any corporate direction, oversight or regulation. This is a matter that every Senior Responsible Officer should ensure is addressed, lest activity is being undertaken that ought to be authorised, to ensure that the right to privacy and matters of collateral intrusion have been adequately considered and staff are not placed at risk by their actions and to ensure that ensuing prosecutions are based upon admissible evidence.”

We have a workshop on investigating E – Crime and Social Networking Sites, which considers all the RIPA implications of such activities.

Common inspection findings

At paragraph 5.47 of the report, the Commissioner lists the main issues that he has commented upon in his inspection reports:

  • Unsubstantiated and brief, or, conversely, excessively detailed intelligence cases
  • Over-formulaic consideration of potential collateral intrusion and an explanation of how this will be managed
  • Limited proportionality arguments by both applicants and Authorising Officers – the four key considerations (identified by my Commissioners and adopted within the Home Office Codes of Practice), if addressed in turn, should provide a suitably reasoned argument
  • More surveillance tactics and equipment authorised at the outset than appear to have been utilised when reviews and cancellations are examined
  • A regurgitation of the original application content at reviews, including a “cut and paste” proportionality entry that fails to address why the activity is still justified, in place of a meaningful update to the Authorising Officer about what has taken place in the intervening period
  • At cancellation, a rarity of meaningful detail for the Authorising Officer about the activity conducted, any collateral intrusion that has occurred, the value of the surveillance and the resultant product; and whether there has been any tangible outcome
  • Similarly, paltry input by Authorising Officers at cancellation as to the outcome and how product must be managed, and any comment about the use or otherwise of all that had been originally argued for and authorised
  • In the case of higher level authorisations for property interference and intrusive surveillance, an over-reliance by Senior Authorising Officers on pre-­prepared entries that alter little from case to case, or at times, regardless of who is acting as the Authorising Officer
  • In those same cases, often poorly articulated personal considerations as to the matters of necessity, collateral intrusion and proportionality; no or few entries at reviews; and little meaningful comment at cancellation
  • On the CHIS documentation, less common, but still encountered, the failure to authorise a CHIS promptly as soon as they have met the criteria; and in many cases (more typically within the non-law enforcement agencies) a failure to recognise or be alive to the possibility that someone may have met those criteria
  • A huge variation in the standard of risk assessments, whereby some provide an excellent “pen picture” of the individual concerned and the associated risks, whilst others can be over-generic and are not timeously updated to enable the Authorising Officer to identify emergent risks
  • Discussions that take place between the Authorising Officer and those charged with the management of the CHIS under Section 29(5) of RIPA are not always captured in an auditable manner for later recall or evidence, though this is starting to improve following our advice
  • As resources become stretched within police forces, the deputy to the person charged with responsibilities for CHIS under Section 29(5)(b) often undertakes those functions: as with an Authorising Officer, this is a responsibility which cannot be shared or delegated

Finally the Commissioner says that during inspections his staff have found that there is “a continuing lack, in many public authorities, of on-going refresher training for officers who may have been trained many years ago, or who have not been eligible for specialised training by dint of career progression or role.”

Those who have an OSC inspection in the Autumn should read Sam Lincoln’s e book which he has written for us entitled “How To Impress An OSC Inspector.” Get in touch if you want a free copy.

Last year new codes of practice under Part 2 of RIPA were introduced.



Looking for an e-learning solution for your RIPA training needs?


Now is the time to consider refresher training for RIPA investigators and authorisers. We have a full program of RIPA Courses and can also deliver these at your premises, tailored to the audience. If you want to avoid re inventing the wheel, our RIPA Policy and Procedures Toolkit gives you a standard policy as well as forms (with detailed notes to assist completion) for authorising RIPA and non-RIPA surveillance.

Author: actnowtraining

Act Now Training is Europe's leading provider of information governance training, serving government agencies, multinational corporations, financial institutions, and corporate law firms. Our associates have decades of information governance experience. We pride ourselves on delivering high quality training that is practical and makes the complex simple. Our extensive programme ranges from short webinars and one day workshops through to higher level practitioner certificate courses delivered online or in the classroom.

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