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POLICE forces across Britain are secretly downloading smartphone data from innocent people without obtaining warrants or even notifying them, campaigners revealed yesterday.
Privacy International (PI) said police are using “highly intrusive technology” to extract data from people’s phones “on a questionable legal basis” and called for an immediate independent review into the “widespread, intrusive [and] secretive practice.”
The campaign group also said that Britain’s “serious problems” with “discriminatory policing” could be exacerbated by use of the technology, which could “disproportionately and unfairly” affect ethnic minorities and political activists.
Technology enabling police to download the contents of a smartphone — which can be used on suspects, victims and witnesses — has been extended nationally since it was first used by Metropolitan officers policing the 2012 Olympics.
PI submitted Freedom of Information requests to Britain’s 47 forces asking whether they used smartphone extraction technology and, if so, which companies provided it.
Of the 42 forces that responded, 26 admitted that they are already using the technology while eight more have either tried it out or intend to.
Documents disclosed to PI revealed “an absence of national guidance and paucity of local policy,” “conflicting views” on the legal basis for searching, downloading and storing personal data and “no clear rules on deletion.”
Companies contracted to do the dirty work include Cellebrite, referred to as an “evil genius” by FBI forensic expert Stephen Flatley and whose technology has allegedly been used in the prosecution of Bahraini rights campaigner Abduljalil al-Singace.
While MSAB, which is used by British Transport Police, has claimed that “if you’ve got access to a sim card, you’ve got access to the whole of a person’s life” and that its XRY software is supplied to “97 per cent of UK police forces.”
The company also boasts that XRY Cloud allows recovery from “beyond the mobile device itself from connected cloud-based storage … without the need for users to re-enter their login details” and can be used to extract Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and other data.
PI found that a Met Police document said that extraction would involve obtaining “all data of a particular type [such as photos], rather than just the individual data that is relevant to a particular investigation.”
PI expressed “serious concern” that those forces that did disclose their guidance on data extraction revealed “uncertainty” about the legal basis for it. The group is calling for the Home Office to publish guidance regarding people’s rights.
Millie Graham Wood, a solicitor with PI, said that it was “disturbing that the police have such a highly draconian power, operating in secret, without any accountability to the public.”
She said: “We need to urgently address how this new frontier of policing might be disproportionately and unfairly impacting on minority ethnic groups, political demonstrators, environmental activists and many other groups that can find themselves in the crosshairs of the police.”
Labour MP David Lammy, who last year conducted a review of the treatment of black, Asian and minority ethnic people by the criminal justice system, said: “The lack of transparency around new policing tools such as mobile-phone extraction is a serious cause for concern.”
He added that “individuals from ethnic-minority backgrounds still face bias in parts of our justice system” but that “it is only because we have transparency and data collection for everything from stop-and-search incidents to crown court sentencing decisions that these disparities are revealed and we are able to hold those in power to account.”
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