Rights Groups Challenge UK Cops over Covert Cellphone Monitoring

Mobile phone monitoring challenged.jpg

Several rights groups have challenged UK police over mobile phone monitoring.

Police forces across the UK who are refusing to disclose their use of covert surveillance technologies to track mobile phones are being challenged.

Five police forces are believed to have purchased hardware known as IMSI – International Mobile Subscriber Identity catcher. The technology mimics mobile phone towers, tricking mobile phones into connecting to them. They can pinpoint phone owners’ locations or intercept phone calls and text messages.

But action groups seeking more information have hit a brick wall, as police simply fall back on the position that they can "neither confirm nor deny" they hold any information on them.

Privacy International, represented by lawyers for the civil rights organization Liberty, will attempt to overturn a ruling allowing the Metropolitan police and seven other forces to “neither confirm nor deny” use of the controversial equipment.

Reports that the Met has been using covert communications data capture (CCDC) that can masquerade as mobile phone network date back to at least 2011.

There has been extensive criticism of illiberal regimes overseas using the technology to crack down on dissidents in states such as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Philippines.

Documented Evidence Obtained

In 2016, documents obtained by the Bristol Cable, a citizens’ media cooperative, indicated that a number of UK police forces had also bought CCDC hardware.

The latest challenge to police surveillance techniques comes in the wake of a high court case surrounding South Wales police’s use of facial recognition cameras. Ed Bridges, a former Liberal Democrat councillor, alleges that the cameras breach data protection and equality laws. Judgment in the case is expected in the autumn.

IMSI catchers can gather data about large numbers of phones over a distance of several miles. The surveillance is said by human rights groups to be “intrusive and indiscriminate”.

Both Privacy International and Liberty argue that police forces are violating the Freedom of Information Act by refusing to disclose information about the technology. The public are being left in the dark about the implications for their privacy rights, free speech and freedom of association, the organisations warn.

The hearing will be at Field House tribunal centre in central London on 27 and 28 August.

Megan Goulding, lawyer for Liberty and Privacy International’s solicitor, said: “We welcome the tribunal’s examination of an inept system where public bodies are free to ‘neither confirm nor deny’ they hold significant information with next to no rigorous scrutiny of their position.

It is vital the public is able to access information on the indiscriminate surveillance technology used against us. We hope the tribunal acknowledges the threat to our rights and encourages a more diligent approach from the Information Commissioner’s Office.

IMSI technology mimics mobile telecoms towers, tricking cellphones into connecting with them.

IMSI technology mimics mobile telecoms towers, tricking cellphones into connecting with them.

The police forces challenged over their alleged use of CCDC technology are the Met, Avon & Somerset, Kent, South Yorkshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire, West Mercia and West Midlands.

Last July, the Information Commissioner’s Office upheld the police forces’ refusal to comment. In its submissions to the ICO, the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS), said: “Although the techniques are in the public domain, it is how and when they might be used, that are the sensitive issues.

Any disclosure under [the Freedom of Information Act] is a disclosure to the world at large, and confirming or denying the use of specialist techniques which may or may not exist, and which (should they exist) the MPS may or may not deploy in specific circumstances would prejudice law enforcement.

Confirmation of its existence would reveal “that the MPS have access to sophisticated communications analysis techniques. This would be damaging as it would:

  1. limit operational capabilities as criminals/terrorists would gain a greater understanding of the MPS’s methods and techniques, enabling them to take steps to counter them; and

  2. provide an indication to any individual who may be undertaking criminal/terrorist activities that the MPS may be aware of their presence and taking counter terrorist measures.”

Covert Coms Capture in use since 2011

Reports that the Met has been using covert communications data capture (CCDC) that can masquerade as mobile phone network date back to at least 2011.

There has been extensive criticism of illiberal regimes overseas using the technology to crack down on dissidents in states such as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Philippines.

In 2016, documents obtained by the Bristol Cable, a citizens’ media cooperative, indicated that a number of UK police forces had also bought CCDC hardware.

The latest challenge to police surveillance techniques comes in the wake of a high court case surrounding South Wales police’s use of facial recognition cameras. Ed Bridges, a former Liberal Democrat councillor, alleges that the cameras breach data protection and equality laws. Judgment in the case is expected in the autumn.

IMSI catchers can gather data about large numbers of phones over a distance of several miles. The surveillance is said by human rights groups to be “intrusive and indiscriminate”.

Both Privacy International and Liberty argue that police forces are violating the Freedom of Information Act by refusing to disclose information about the technology. The public are being left in the dark about the implications for their privacy rights, free speech and freedom of association, the organisations warn.

The hearing will be at Field House tribunal center in central London on 27 and 28 August.

Sources: The Register, The Guardian