UK privacy groups fight police over mobile phone spying technology

8 Aug 2018

London police officers. Image: Brian A. Jackson/Shutterstock

Two UK privacy organisations are filing a legal challenge against UK police over their refusal to provide information about mobile phone spying.

Privacy International, represented by human rights group Liberty, will be challenging UK police in court over their refusal to discuss their use of IMSI (International Mobile Subscriber Identity) catchers in mass mobile device monitoring.

IMSI catchers are devices that mimic cell towers to intercept and record all mobile traffic in a given area. The equipment can trick phones into connecting with it, thereby revealing personal information. Some models can intercept data, edit communications and even block service in certain cases.

A years-long battle

The use of the equipment by police forces in the UK was revealed in 2016 after The Bristol Cable sent an FOI request as part of a larger investigation. This request unearthed the acronym ‘CCDC’, which stood for ‘Covert Communications Data Capture’. The CCDC acronym was present in documents from a number of UK police forces.

Several UK police forces have bought the IMSI equipment, but freedom of information requests for further details have been responded to with statements that the police can “neither confirm nor deny” any such details actually exist. Police forces in Staffordshire, South Yorkshire, Avon and Somerset, and Warwickshire are among those known to possess IMSI catchers.

Challenging the UK Information Commissioner

The legal action is set to challenge a ruling from the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). The ruling permitted law enforcement to use such blanket statements in response to FOI queries. But Privacy International argues that this ruling runs in opposition to what the Freedom of Information Act stands for.

Legal officer at Privacy International, Scarlet Kim, said: “This secrecy is all the more troubling given the indiscriminate manner in which IMSI catchers operate.

“These tools are particularly ripe for abuse when used at public gatherings, such as protests, where the government can easily collect data about all those attending.”

Kim added that the refusals to supply information by police were at odds with the increasing evidence of IMSI catchers appearing over time.

Consequences for freedom of citizens

Liberty and Privacy International are concerned that the technology could be covertly used at peaceful protests and other demonstrations to collect information about attendees.

Privacy International has been submitting FOI requests for approximately two years, to no avail.

Solicitor for Privacy International and lawyer for Liberty, Megan Goulding, said the system was “inept” and the lack of scrutiny applied to such public bodies needed to change. “It is vital the public is able to access information on the indiscriminate surveillance technology used against us,” she said.

Privacy International said: “The public has a right to know how its funds are being expended and how police surveillance may seriously interfere with their civil liberties and human rights.

“Without the information requested by Privacy International, the public cannot properly debate, scrutinise and hold the police accountable for their actions.”

London police officers. Image: Brian A Jackson/Shutterstock

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects