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Tribunal challenge to police refusal to disclose phone surveillance technology


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Eight forces taken to hearing by activist group seeking to overturn 2018 ruling.

Covert: It has been alleged the Met has been using data capture tech that can mimic phone networks

Covert: It has been alleged the Met has been using data capture tech that can mimic phone networks

Date - 23rd August 2019
By - Ceysun Dixon 
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The refusal of forces to disclose whether they are exploiting covert surveillance technology to track mobile phones is to be challenged this week.

Anti-surveillance group Privacy International – represented by lawyers for the civil rights organisation Liberty – will attempt to overturn a ruling that allows the eight to “neither confirm nor deny” the use of the controversial equipment.

Privacy International will argue at a two-day tribunal forces are violating the Freedom of Information Act by refusing to disclose information about the hardware, known as an International Mobile Subscriber Identity catcher, alleged to be used by forces across the UK.

IMSI mimics phone towers and tricks mobile handsets into connecting to them, allowing the owners of these devices to have their location pinpointed, or their calls or text messages intercepted.

Reports that the Met has been using this covert communications data capture method, which can masquerade as a mobile phone network, stretch back to at least 2011.

And in 2016, a citizens’ rights media organisation obtained documents that indicated Avon and Somerset, South Yorkshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Kent, West Mercia and West Midlands forces had also acquired the hardware.

The IMSI catchers are able to gather data from a large subset of phones over a distance of miles.  Privacy International maintain the public are being kept in the dark about the implications regarding their privacy and free speech rights.

The central London hearing comes almost two years from when the privacy rights group sought the disclosures from the eight forces.

Last July, the Information Commissioner upheld the police forces’ refusal to comment on the request to divulge information on whether they had purchased and used the covert communications data capture technology.

Megan Goulding, the lawyer for Liberty and solicitor representing Privacy International, 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.”

The Met also released a statement, telling Police Oracle it could not comment on the allegations directly.

However, it said: “The Metropolitan Police Service can neither confirm nor deny the use of specific covert surveillance technologies. To do so may impact on our ability to protect the safety and security of Londoners.

“We would like to reassure the public that the use of any covert surveillance is governed by strict legislation, associated governance and a full oversight regime.”

The most recent challenge to police surveillance techniques come after High Court case surrounding South Wales Police’s use of facial recognition cameras in 2017.

Liberty campaigners told the first ever legal challenge to automatic facial recognition at the Cardiff Civil Justice and Family Centre in May this year that although they demanded “greater regulation” for use of facial recognition technology, the police was acting “responsibly” and within the law.

Judgment in that case is expected in the autumn.

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Nothing like trying to "Hog Tie" the Police and make the job more difficult than it already is.

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