What Country Monitors Communications the Most: U.S., U.K., Canada, or Australia?

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
July 18 2012 11:45 AM

What Country Monitors Communications the Most: U.S., U.K., Canada, or Australia?

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Could law enforcement be monitoring your cell phone communications?

Photo by KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/GettyImages

Law enforcement demands for subscriber information spiked in the United States last year, while at the same time wiretapping requests declined. The numbers suggest the nature of surveillance could be changing. But how do statistics from other countries compare?

Ryan Gallagher Ryan Gallagher

Ryan Gallagher is a journalist who reports on surveillance, security, and civil liberties.

In the United Kingdom, the latest figures on communications surveillance were published last week. They showed that in 2011, 494,078 requests for communications data were made by authorities. Communications data include IP addresses, the date and time a communication was sent, and location information—but not the actual content of a call, text, or email. Still high at about 1,300 per day (and almost one per minute), the 494,078 requests in fact represented a decline of 11 percent from the previous year. In direct contrast, perhaps due to the security effort around the upcoming London Olympics, the United Kingdom witnessed a steep rise in warrants authorizing the interception of communications content. 2,911 interception requests were granted—a 73 percent increase on 2010’s reported 1,682.

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The United States also can also obtain information via FISA requests, which increased by 10 per cent in 2011. Passed by Congress in 1978, FISA is designed to govern "foreign intelligence surveillance" of persons in the United States. It allows federal authorities to conduct a range of surveillance methods in order to protect against terrorism, espionage or foreign spies. The law is currently the subject of a legal challenge launched by human rights and civil liberties groups, soon to be considered by the Supreme Court. The ACLU, representing plaintiffs in the case, argues FISA has granted the National Security Agency "unchecked power to monitor Americans’ international phone calls and emails."

In the United States, federal and state courts approved 2,732 intercepts, or “wiretaps,” in 2011 as part of criminal investigations—a decline of 14 percent from 2010. It appears, then, that though the United Kingdom has a population that is about one-fifth the size of the United States’, it intercepted a far higher percentage of its citizens’ communications (see chart). Additionally, earlier this month it emerged U.S. cell carriers received a massive 1.3 million demands for subscriber information last year from law enforcement agencies. The nearest U.K. equivalent of this figure—the 494,078 communications data requests—is significantly lower, though still proportionally high in comparison.

Other countries recorded an overall fall in surveillance measures. In Australia, there were 3,488 interceptions authorized in 2010-11, a small decline of 3 percent from the previous year. Communications data requests in the country also went down over the same period: there were 243,631 in 2010-11, a drop of 14 percent. However, on an estimated per-100,000 basis, Australia’s recorded surveillance rates remain the highest of the countries profiled here, as the chart shows.

In Canada, there were just 635 interceptions authorized, a 28 percent reduction from 2010. As for the communications data figure, there isn’t any authoritative number available, as no official record is kept. According to Ontario-based academic Michael Geist, Canada suffers from “a huge information disclosure issue with no reporting and no oversight.” The Royal Canadian Mounted Police made more than 28,000 requests for customer names and addresses in 2010, Geist says.

The surveillance statistics compared across nations seem to vary wildly. Though there is at least one discernable pattern: the collective drop in officially recorded wiretaps in the United States, Canada, and Australia, which could be attributed to several factors.

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It’s possible that fewer wiretaps of communications are being conducted in these countries because more people are turning to online-based VOIP chat technologies difficult to eavesdrop on—such as Skype and Jitsi. This is part of the ongoing argument being advanced by the FBI to justify new Internet surveillance powers. But it’s also possible that as traditional wiretapping is becoming slowly obsolete, it is being replaced by more covert, unaccounted forms of surveillance. Favored methods may include social media monitoring or, as National Security Agency whistle-blowers in the United States have alleged, dragnet interception systems that function outside the law.

Note: Each per-100,000 figure is based on individual interception authorizations and communications data requests as recorded in official reports. They should be considered rough estimates, as a single interception request may sometimes include dozens of individual targets. The same applies to communications data requests. In some cases several communications data requests can be generated to get information on the same person. The reverse can also be the case, with a single communications data order garnering information on hundreds, even thousands, of individuals—such as a request for a cell phone “tower dump” showing location data of all people in a single area.

It is also the case that the interception figure for the United States could be much higher. While official numbers have the figure at 12,498 wiretaps over past five years for federal and state courts, plus 9,097 surveillance orders issued under FISA, in response to a congressional inquiry earlier this month, Sprint alone reported that it had received 52,029 court orders for wiretap requests in the same period.

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