Surveillance figures could mask bugging of millions

British security agencies who made 440,000 requests to monitor people's phone and internet use in 2005 and 2006 could in fact have tracked millions of people.

Each interception warrant is capable of permitting surveillance of a premises which could contain tens or hundreds of people. Each request for communications data, a different kind of request, can relate to a person or an organisation.

The Interceptions of Communications Commissioner revealed in his annual report that in a 15-month period in 2005 and 2006 there were 439,054 requests for communications data made by public and security authorities.

There were 4,843 warrants for the interception of communications in the same period. A single warrant could legitimise the bugging of an entire office.

An interception is the bugging of the content of a phone call, letter, email or internet session. A request for communications data will reveal the time of a call or email and the number or address called or emailed. In the case of mobile phones it can reveal the location of the person. Communications data does not include the content of a call, email or letter.

The law governing interception clearly states that a warrant can cover an entire premises and not just an individual. "An interception warrant must name or describe either one person as the interception subject or a single set of premises as the premises in relation to which the interception to which the warrant relates is to take place," says section eight of part one, chapter one of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA).

In relation to the less detailed requests for disclosure of communications data, the Act says that authorities can request information on communication by "persons". In legislation 'person' generally refers to an individual or an organisation.

Former Interceptions of Communications Commissioner Sir Swinton Thomas published his final annual report and submitted it to the Prime Minister, Parliament and the Scottish Ministers yesterday. The report covers the period 1st January 2005 to 31st March 2006. After that date Sir Paul Kennedy took over as Commissioner.

The report reveals the scale of communications surveillance in the UK. The 4,843 communications interceptions are the most serious cases, and are likely to have involved organised crime and terrorism.

The almost half a million cases of authorities requesting call, internet and email log data are likely to involve less serious cases, such as individual crimes and even cases of missing people, where mobile call logs can give a clue to a person's activity or location.

The Commissioner oversees the activities of 795 public bodies, including intelligence services MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, the police, local authorities and regulators.

The head of civil liberties campaign group Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, has said that the high numbers of people under surveillance indicated that the Government has a "creeping contempt for our personal privacy".