CIVIL liberties campaigners hit out at level of police spying – for which cops have to ask nobody’s permission.
SCOTS police have secretly accessed people’s private email and phone records more than 85,000 times in the last five years.
But each application to telecom firms for the information can contain requests for several different individuals, so the true scale of the scrutiny is far greater.
Northern Constabulary, who serve a population of 300,000, made more than 20,000 snooping applications – roughly one for every 15 people in the area.
Yesterday, one civil liberties campaigner warned Scotland was moving towards the same levels of surveillance as China and Iran.
Police have the powers to check on people without their knowledge through the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Scotland) Act 2000.
They can check private call and text records – without seeing the content – and only need written permission from a senior colleague.
For more intrusive forms of surveillance, including phone taps or bugging someone’s property, permission has to be granted by the Chief Surveillance Commissioner.
This is usually done in more serious cases such as investigations into organised crime and murder.
The snooping law was originally brought in to combat terrorism and serious crime but critics claim it is often used without proper justification.
Scotland’s largest force, Strathclyde Police, topped the spying league making a 27,924 applications for personal information on email and phone activity.
In the last year, they sent more than 4742 applications to telecoms firms, snooping on almost 10,000 individuals.
Scottish Tory justice spokesman David McLetchie called for a review of how police access people’s emails and phone records when the single police force is introduced next year.
He said: “This amounts to an invasion of privacy and civil liberties.
“The police require such powers in order to effectively investigate serious crime, but the extent and justification for their use must be kept under review.
“Authority to tap phones and intercept emails should not be given lightly.”
Nick Pickles, director of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch, said: “These are unprecedented steps that could see Scotland’s police adopt the same kind of extreme surveillance seen in China and Iran.
“Clearly, the police need to be able to access sensitive communications data but it’s not clear that it’s only being used for serious crimes.”
Drug kingpin Jamie “Iceman” Stevenson was the first gangland figure brought down by secret police bugs.
The Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency recorded 3500 hours of conversations and calls after bugging his phones and properties in Scotland and Amsterdam.
Labour MSP Graeme Pearson, former head of the SCDEA, insisted the powers given to police to access email and phone records are vital in the fight against crime.
He said: “Some politicians are alarmed by these figures but it has to be clear that there is a need to use the facilities that RIPSA provide if we want to combat organised crime.”
But SNP MSP Sandra White said: “I am concerned that the police even have this power.
“These figures show that it is being used excessively. I’m not saying we are living in a police state, but I am worried by the number of times it has been used.”
Former MP John McAllion believes his phone was tapped during the Timex factory dispute in Dundee in 1993.
He said: “These powers should only be used where there are genuine threats to national security.
“There is no evidence that there is terrorist activity on that scale anywhere in Scotland.
“You can’t give a blank cheque to invade people’s privacy.”
The Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland insist the powers are only used when necessary. A spokesman said: “Accessing personal phone and email records is not done as a matter of course but only when required by officers to further their enquiries.”