A combined agency created to audit state spying in the UK has commenced operations. The Investigatory Powers Commission will aim to ensure that the Government’s monitoring activities operate within the bounds of the law.
The IPCO marks the first regulatory change to the UK’s surveillance network since the introduction of the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, which considerably extended the remit of the state’s spying activities. The agency is a consolidated body of three former oversight watchdogs, and will be led by Investigatory Powers Commissioner, Lord Justice Fulford.
While the IPCO has not yet assumed its full responsibilities, the agency will audit the full range of UK spying activities – from domestic police exercises to the operations of the Secret Intelligence Service, commonly referred to as MI6. Currently composed of around 70 staff members, including 15 judicial commissioners (comprised of current and retired judges), the IPCO will monitor the records of public sector surveillance at organised intervals, and can even carry out surprise inspections.
As the IPCO expands, so will its operations. IPCO commissioners will eventually be responsible for the authorisation of warrants issued by politicians that allow agencies to spy on targets. This ‘double lock’ process will replace the current practice where only the politician involved would have to sign these permissions. This means that, in theory, the IPCO’s judicial commissioners could block such activities.
Lord Justice Fulford said on Friday: “From today, and for the first time, investigatory powers will be overseen by a single body applying a consistent, rigorous and independent inspection regime across public authorities. This is an important milestone as we start to implement the new oversight powers set out in the Investigatory Powers Act.”
Whether these powers will translate into practice remains to be seen. Limiting conditions for the IPCO are woven into section 229 of the Investigatory Powers Act. Of particular interest are sub-sections 6 and 7, which curtail the power of the IPCO if their investigations conflict with preserving national security or impede the effectiveness of intelligence operations. Therefore, while the IPCO can issue a ‘monetary penalty notice’ (a fine) of up to £50,000, the spying agency in question could contest that such an expense unduly impedes the operational effectiveness of its activities. Furthermore, these fines can only be issued after-the-fact.
The organisation will be responsible for monitoring organisations including, the UK’s fire and rescue services, Food Standards Agency, and Gambling Commission. A full list of public authorities which full under the purview of the Investigatory Powers Commission can be found here.