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Last Updated: Friday, 25 July, 2003, 15:51 GMT 16:51 UK
A-Z of Secret Britain
The laws relating to secrecy and privacy in British life are numerous and some of them often appear to contradict each other. BBC News Online offers a glossary of laws and agencies governing "Secret Britain".

The Freedom of Information Act 2000
The act established a general right of access to information held on people by public bodies in England.

Public bodies must publish the information they hold on individuals.

The Scottish Parliament has agreed to introduce a Freedom of Information Act by 2005. It is considered by campaigners to be more powerful than its English counterpart.

Wales has its own code of practice on access to information

The Public Records Act
It regulates the release of government information, such as Cabinet papers, under the 30-year rule.

The information commissioner
The information commissioner, currently Richard Thomas, is responsible for enforcing and overseeing the Data Protection and Freedom of Information Acts.

His office receives complaints from the public about the misuse of their personal data and investigates whether the law has been broken.

His annual report to Parliament for 2002 revealed there had been more than 12,000 complaints that led to 33 convictions.

Freedom of information campaigners have argued that the commissioner has not interpreted his role widely enough and is not doing enough to ensure people have access to the data held on them.

Data Protection Act 1998
The act was introduced as a response to growing public disquiet about personal information held on computers.

It created a good practice code for holders of personal information, which means they must process data accurately and for limited purposes.

The act gives individuals rights to access the data held on them and to seek compensation if data is wrongly held or used, though there are exemptions such as national security and law enforcement.

Organisations can charge 10 for such requests.

The act created a Data Protection Registrar, whose job it was to monitor compliance, but this has been replaced by the Information Commissioner.

Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) 2000
Ripa updated the law on the interception of communications and puts the onus on internet service providers (ISPs) to disclose information to the government when required.

Ripa has been branded a "snoopers' charter" by human rights campaigners who say it gives the government unprecedented powers to monitor the communications of law-abiding citizens.

It provides new guidance on the use of covert surveillance and gives the state new powers to access encrypted computer data.

Investigatory Powers Tribunal
The tribunal, which was set up by RIPA and replaced the Interception of Communications Tribunal, is designed to deal with complaints from the public about surveillance by the intelligence services and the police.

It is headed by Lord Justice Mummery and is made of up of a president, vice-president and seven QCs.

The tribunal investigated over 102 complaints against the security services during 2001, but upheld none.

It was set up to sit in secret but, after a challenge by the Guardian newspaper under the Human Rights Act, will now sit in public when there is no "threat to national security".

Office of Surveillance Commissioners (OSC)
The OSC's remit is to review authorisations by chief officers of police, the National Criminal Intelligence Service, the National Crime Squad and HM Customs, for operations involving entry onto private property, or interference with property or telephones, without the consent of the owner.

When surveillance commissioners have to give prior approval
If the target premises is a home, or a hotel bedroom
If the target premises is an office
If legally privileged information, confidential personal details or confidential journalistic material is likely to be acquired

The OSC also reviews operations involving human intelligence sources - spies and informants. It is made up of former judges and is currently headed by Sir Andrew Leggatt. He reports annually to the prime minister and the Scottish first minister.

The OSC, funded by the Home Office, does not have the power to review operations carried out by the secret services or the military.

The Interception of Communications Act 1985
The act, for the first time, created a framework for the interception of mail and telephone communications.

Under the act the home secretary needs to be convinced of one of three criteria before he can sign an interception warrant: a risk to the national security of the UK; a threat of serious crime; or a threat to the economic well-being of the UK.

The act also sets out guidelines on the way intercepted material could be copied, distributed and stored.

Interception of communications commissioner
Set up by the above act, the commissioner is primarily responsible for reviewing warrants issued by the home secretary and the Scottish Executive to intercept communications.

The current commissioner, Sir Swinton Thomas, is a former judge. He reports to the prime minister and Parliament every year.

In his 2001 report he said 1,314 phone taps were authorised, but there were 43 errors made - such as the targeting of an incorrect address or telephone number. Some of these errors led to some people being monitored by the security services without reason.

Lawful Business Practice Regulations
Another product of Ripa, the regulations establish in what ways employers can snoop on their employees.

Employers can intercept communications, including e-mails, letters and phone calls, without their employees' consent.

The employers need only suspect that "regulations are not being complied with" to begin monitoring, although they do have to inform staff this may take place.

Employees are protected by the Data Protection Act, which provides guidelines for the way in which the information gathered can be used for.

Intelligence services commissioner
The commissioner, Lord Justice Simon Brown, reviews the warrants issued by the home secretary that authorise interference with property and telephone equipment by the intelligence services.

He also reviews the use of intrusive and covert human surveillance by the security services.

Lord Brown also has powers to review the activities of the secret intelligence services abroad, even those which been sanctioned by the foreign secretary.

The commissioner can demand access to documentation from the security services and makes an annual report to the prime minister that is then presented to Parliament.

The Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001
The act allows the public bodies to disclose personal information to the authorities when criminal investigations are under way.

The act allows Customs & Excise and the Inland Revenue to disclose financial details to the authorities.

Under the act, data used by phone companies and internet service providers must be provided to the authorities when there is a threat to national security.

Defence, press and broadcasting advisory committee
The committee is an informal body made up of five government officials and 12 media representatives which regulates the publishing or broadcasting of information that may be a threat to national security.

There are standing DA notices covering five sensitive areas - military operations and plans; nuclear weapons; codes; sensitive installations and home addresses; and the intelligence services.

The notices are not legally binding but most newspaper editors and broadcasting chiefs tend to pay heed as it does not look good to be seen to be endangering national security or servicemen's lives.

The committee's secretary, Rear Admiral Nick Wilkinson, also gives informal advice to the media and did so during the Iraq war on the activities of special forces.

An example of a DA notice in operation was the recent case of British soldiers captured by rebels in Sierra Leone.

Special forces were sent to rescue them but a DA notice was issued preventing reporting of the mission in case the captured soldiers were killed or hidden.

Wireless Telegraphy Act 1998 This act, which updates earlier legislation, governs the management of the radio spectrum.

Basically anyone using a frequency making up part of the spectrum - from mobile phone companies to radio stations - has to get a licence from the Radio Communications Agency, which is soon to become part of the watchdog Ofcom.

Under the act it is illegal to transmit on a frequency without a licence - for example using an audio transmitter bug.




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