The body set up to protect UK citizens from having their communications data unfairly accessed by the police or secret agents has yet to rule in favour of a single complainant despite receiving hundreds of complaints, the government has revealed.
The Investigatory Powers Tribunal was created in October 2000 to safeguard citizens from abuses of the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), which lets certain government authorities get access to private information about people's Internet and mobile phone habits.
Simon Watkin of the Home Office told a Parliamentary meeting on Wednesday that the Investigatory Powers Tribunal -- which is made up of senior lawyers and judges -- had considered some 470 complaints from people who claimed they had been unfairly investigated under RIPA's powers, and had not upheld a single one.
According to RIPA's opponents, this information adds weight to the argument that the existing Act, and the government's current attempts to widen it, pose a significant threat to the privacy of UK citizens.
But the Home Office says it is proof that RIPA is not being abused.
"It shows that the complainants either weren't under surveillance at all, or that their communications data was being lawfully intercepted," Watkin insisted.
This claim didn't find much favour with Lord Phillips, chairing the meeting, who said he was amazed that none of the 470 complaints were legitimate. In response, Watkin suggested that spending a day with the Home Office and seeing some of the correspondence it receives would change that view.
At the moment, the government is trying to get Parliament to approve changes to RIPA that will allow more government agencies to get access to details of individuals' telephone and Internet usage, and will also force service providers to retain this data.
Simon Davies, director of Privacy International, told Wednesday's meeting that these statutory instruments could cause a "privacy apocalypse" in the UK. He believes they amount to a "snoopers' charter" that may violate the European Convention on Human Rights.
Watkin, though, said that making more government agencies work within RIPA will actually tighten up privacy by establishing a proper code of conduct for public workers who want access to citizens' information."If the most junior of junior officials at the Trading Standards suspects me of a crime and wants to access my data, he can get it today. I'll be safer if he had to fill in a seven-page form and explain to a very senior manager why he wants that access," Watkin explained.