The first institutional change to the UK’s surveillance apparatus since the outcry following the Edward Snowden revelations has taken place.
It marks the dawn of a new era of more rigorous oversight which is intended to keep the authorities’ stronger investigatory powers in check.
Lord Justice Fulford has taken office as the first Investigatory Powers Commissioner (IPC), amalgamating the three watchdog roles which had previously overseen surveillance powers in the UK.
His role was created by the Investigatory Powers Act, also known by the epithet Snoopers’ Charter, which became law at the end of last year.
The legislation itself was produced as a result of recommendations made in three independent reviews into the UK’s surveillance activities following on from the initial Snowden disclosures.
The commissioner will be supported by an office, IPCO, which is initially being made up of staff from the existing bodies although more will be hired as the various oversight provisions of the bill enter into law.
One of the most contested provisions known as the the judicial “double-lock” will not immediately be part of IPCO’s duties, however.
When it comes in it will, for the first time in English legal history, require judicial involvement in the authorisation of the most invasive forms of investigation, such as wiretapping and hacking.
Previously these powers only required the sign-off of a government minister but the double-lock will allow judicial commissioners to refuse warrants that ministers inappropriately agree to.
IPCO will also carry out inspections of hundreds of public authorities each year, including the security and intelligence agencies, law enforcement agencies, local authorities and prisons.
The office is meant to ensure that the bulk collection of Britons’ internet communications is done according to the law and that authorities with access to that information behave properly
Roughly 70 staff will be working for IPCO at a new office building to be based in London, including 15 current and former judges with extensive experience and more than 20 inspection officers.
It will also oversee the intercepting of phone calls, the running of agents by the security and intelligence services and police, as well as those authorities’ powers to hack computer devices.
The three reports filed by the watchdog bodies which it amalgamated have been handed to the Government, and the prime minister will lay them before Parliament when it is sitting again.
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