The figures from September, released under Freedom of Information, found 954 applications were made to communications service providers for valuable “metadata”.
This details who people were communicating with, including dates, times and – in the case of phone conversations – duration of calls. It is often referred to as “the who, the when and the where” of police information gathering.
A further 68 requests were made to social media sites, thought to include Facebook and Twitter.
Requests for metadata are easy for police to obtain because they can simply be requested by an assistant chief constable. Requests for the actual content of communications – for example, what words are texted or what is said in phone conversations – need to be signed off by the justice secretary, Kenny Mac-Askill.
John Finnie MSP, a former police officer, called the figures “astonishing” and said he will write to MacAskill urging a review of the law granting police powers to snoop on personal communications.
The figures for September are likely to be an underestimate of the amount of intrusion into Scots’ private lives. They do not cover requests made by English police forces, or UK intelligence agencies such as MI5. Neither do they include requests to phone companies and email providers for the actual content of communications.
Police Scotland would not disclose which companies the requests were made to.
The force limited the Freedom of Information inquiry to one month as it claimed it would cost too much money to provide information on longer periods of time.
However, the information Scotland on Sunday received reveals Police Scotland had made about 25,000 applications over four years. That would equal an average of about 500 a month, suggesting last September’s figure was comparatively high and numbers are on the increase.
Police surveillance is overseen by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Scotland) Act 2000 (Ripsa). Any application for metadata can be granted with the authorisation of an officer of assistant chief constable rank and above.
These requests are reviewed by the Interception of Communications Commissioner Office (IOCCO), a UK body that reports to both Westminster and Holyrood parliaments. The sheer numbers of applications now being made have led to calls for more rigorous oversight, especially in the light of recent revelations from whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Finnie, a former SNP member and now independent MSP, said: “The Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Scotland) Act 2000 should act to ensure that the correct balance is achieved between the police being able to investigate crime and the citizen’s right to a private life, and any suggestion that balance is being tilted and unwarranted intrusion is taking place must be robustly addressed.
“The figures quoted are quite astonishing and raise questions about the amount of police time taken up pursuing those applications for communications data.
“Whether it’s because of the Snowden revelations, or more recently the disclosure of the pernicious, complicit role GCHQ has played with the US in unwarranted intrusion into the privacy of citizens it’s purported to be serving, the public are becoming increasingly wary of the ‘surveillance society’ we are living in.”
A report by the intelligence and security committee at Westminster in February last year revealed that 500,000 communication data applications are made every year in the UK.
The report did not doubt that this level of intrusion was necessary, but rather raised concerns about a “capability gap” if the security services are not able to keep up with developments in communications technology.
In the report, then MI5 director general Sir Jonathan Evans is quoted as saying: “It’s part of the backbone of the way in which we would approach investigations.
“I think I would be accurate in saying there are no significant investigations that we undertake across the service that don’t use communications data because of its ability to tell you the who and the when and the where of your target’s activities. It tends to be relatively reliable. It’s relatively accessible at the moment in a number of areas, and from our point of view it’s a very, very important capability.”
Another former police officer has warned against police being given “carte blanche” access to people’s online conversations.
Graeme Pearson, Scottish Labour’s justice spokesman and former director general of the Scottish Crime and Drugs Enforcement Agency, added: “The powers that the police have under Ripsa are an important tool in the fight against crime.
“However, it doesn’t mean they have carte blanche to infiltrate the lives of law- abiding citizens, they must only be used to prove criminal activity.”
Lawyers questioned whether the number of convictions based on communications data currently justify 1,000 applications a month.
Aamer Anwar, a human rights lawyer, said: “The figure appears extremely high.
“Of course the police will claim they need such powers to fight crime but if such a level of intrusion is warranted why are there no similar high figures of subsequent successful prosecutions? There has been a growing concern that such applications are being used as a ‘fishing expedition’.
“Free speech is an essential foundation of our democracy and such applications are an erosion of that principle if they are being rubber-stamped and granted with no real oversight.”
John Scott QC added: “It’s an area of investigation that police have to be able to explore and it might be that an increase is the right thing and that police have become more confident with understanding information.
“But there needs to be a proper check on it, especially with Police Scotland and some of the shifts in emphasis towards old-fashioned policing, stop and search and the approach to sex workers in Edinburgh which we have seen.”
The Scottish Government said it backed the police on the issue, but added that an independent Scotland would update the legislation.
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We support Police Scotland in being able to obtain the information it requires in order to prevent and detect crime and are confident it does so legitimately in accordance with the statutory tests of necessity and proportionality.
“In an independent Scotland, legislation will set out clear arrangements for investigatory powers, building on – and updating where necessary – this act, and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Scotland) Act 2000.
“Planned legislation will ensure that law enforcement agencies have the powers that they need to do their job and keep Scotland safe, while also clarifying the limit of those powers and the extent of the controls over them.”
A Police Scotland spokesman added: “Applications for the gathering of communications data form part of the routine surveillance work carried out by Police Scotland.
“These applications are closely governed by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers regulations covering the UK and all applications have to be authorised by a senior officer.”
Willie Rennie: Intrusion by the state must be monitored
IT IS said that Benjamin Franklin once warned that a society which is willing to give up a little freedom for a little security will lose both and deserve neither. As a liberal, I tend to agree with him. I believe that we do not best protect the values which we hold dear by ignoring them.
The right to a private life is fundamental in Scotland today and a principle at the heart of a liberal society. We must strike the right balance between traditional freedoms and our security.
With the last Labour government it often seemed that ministers got it wrong. Under Labour we saw an increase in legislation and a massive expansion of the intrusion of the state in our personal lives.
In Scotland, since the nationalists came to power, stop and search use has quadrupled and is also four times higher than in England. That 500 children under the age of ten have been subjected to stop and search is something Scottish ministers must tackle.
The police have used communications data successfully in the past to help prevent crime and secure convictions. Communications data provides officers with an important tool to fight crime and help keep our communities safe.
But with increasing concern over the monitoring of communications data, safeguards introduced in RIPSA by the then justice minister Jim Wallace must be adhered to. If revision is required, because of changing circumstances, Scottish ministers must act.
We need to ensure that applications for monitoring are not simply rubber-stamped, but are properly considered to avoid inappropriate use and fishing expeditions.
• Willie Rennie is leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats