Met unable to search RIPA database for 'journalist' but reveals 300,000 applications in five years

The Metropolitan Police processed nearly 300,000 Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act applications over a five-year period.

But the force, which admitted last month to secretly obtaining the phone records of The Sun newsdesk and its political editor under RIPA, has refused to describe the system on which applications are held – despite a Freedom of Information request made by Press Gazette.

The Met also said it could not search its system for terms such as “journalist” or “editor”, and also could not search the names of newspapers and journalists.

This was the second FoI made by Press Gazette, on the use of RIPA against journalists, which the Met has rejected – both on cost grounds.

Press Gazette asked:

How many applications have been made by Metropolitan Police staff under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to obtain telecoms records?

“Please describe the system in which RIPA requests are recorded – is it a spreadsheet, and what information is held about each request in the system?

“On how many RIPA applications for telecoms records do the words "journalist"/ "newspaper"/ "reporter"/ "editor" appear in the system?

“Please list the number of times in the RIPA records of telephone record applications between these dates that the following words are mentioned, providing a date and details of the request (please specify whether details for some of the words/names cannot be disclosed): [48 search names of journalists and publications followed].”

The Met said it could not answer the FoI, referencing a £450 cost threshold, saying: “[T]o establish how many RIPA applications contain the words you have highlighted in your request we would have to manually read through a very high number of RIPA applications just for the 2012/13 year.”

This was the second Press Gazette FoI on the use of RIPA against journalists rejected by the Met on cost grounds. The first asked for details on how often the act has been used to obtain journalists' phone records.

All other police forces in the UK have either rejected the same FoI or failed to answer so far. A number of forces cited "national security" for the exemption rather than cost.

However, the Interception of Communications Commissioner and Home Affairs Select Committee chair, Keith Vaz, have both written to all police forces and asked for the same details. 

The Home Office said on Saturday that changes to the code of practice on use of RIPA, which will give greater protection to journalists, would be put before Parliament before Christmas.

The Met provided Press Gazete with another FoI release, which documented how many RIPA applications had been made over five years.

This showed that 45,084 applications were made between April 2008 and May 2009, 54,235 between these months in 2009 and 2010, 59,568 between 2010 and 2011, 59,427 between 2011 and 2012, and 58,909 between 2012 and 2013. This makes a total of 277,223.

According to Green Party London Assembly Member Jenny Jones, the Met made 95,000 RIPA applications in total in 2013.

As for the rest of the Press Gazette FoI request, the Met said: “We estimate that the cost of complying with this request would exceed the appropriate limit. The appropriate limit has been specified in regulations and for agencies outside central Government; this is set at £450.00.  

“This represents the estimated cost of one person spending 18 hours [at a rate of £25 per hour] in determining whether the MPS holds the information, and locating, retrieving and extracting the information.”

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