In November 2015, home secretary Theresa May revealed that the UK’s security and intelligence agencies had been gathering data on millions of people’s telephone calls for years. She admitted the use of this “bulk” power – one that gathers material in an untargeted fashion on a large number of people – when announcing the revised Investigatory Powers (IP) Bill, which she said would “put that power on a more explicit footing”.
But communications records are far from being the only large databases retained by the agencies. In October 2015, MI5 director general Andrew Parker said in a speech that alongside communications data the use of “travel data, passport information or other datasets” was “fundamental to our work”.
Under pressure from Labour, May agreed to a review of the IP Bill’s plans for bulk powers led by the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation David Anderson QC, who wrote a report on the draft bill. His new report is due to appear in time for the bill’s forthcoming committee stage in the House of Lords.
But documents released in April 2016 by Privacy International have already provided significant insights into the agencies’ use of population-wide databases – as well as clues to their identities. The civil liberties group published documents from its case against the agencies at the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, due to be heard at the end of July.