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Report: U.K. police secretly deploy cellphone data extraction technologies

Privacy International is demanding an independent review.


David Gilmour


Over the past six years, police forces across the U.K. have quietly been deploying highly intrusive cellphone extraction technologies to collect the personal content and data of suspects and victims without a warrant, charity organization Privacy International reported Monday.

Entitled Digital Stop and Search, the report details findings from documents acquired through freedom of information requests made by campaigners at Privacy International. They reveal that more than half of the police forces in the country have adopted sophisticated tools which allow them to carry out forensic-level analysis of any mobile device.

The technology is being sold by companies like MSAB and Cellebrite, already known for selling law enforcement hacking technologies.

Privacy activists are particularly concerned, however, that there is no clear government policy on the use of these technologies, despite widespread and warrantless deployment in instances of both low-level and serious crime.

At the moment there is no fundamental guidance for police regarding the deletion of data obtained, what consent is required to access it, or what data is appropriate for the police to access on a device as it relates to the relevant investigation.

“You could search a person, and their entire home, and never find anywhere near as much information as you could from searching their phone,” said Millie Graham Wood, a lawyer with Privacy International. “Yet the police can take data from your phone without your consent, without your knowledge and without a warrant. It is disturbing that the police have such a highly draconian power, operating in secret, without any accountability to the public.”

Wood’s organization is demanding a full independent review and public consultation into the secretive use of data harvesting technologies by law enforcement. Privacy International’s goal is to put regulations and public protections in place, and the call to action has been welcomed by David Lammy, a member of U.K. Parliament. 

“Given the sensitive nature and wealth of information stored on our mobile phones, there is significant risk of abuse and for conscious or unconscious bias to become a factor without independent scrutiny and in the absence of effective legal safeguards,” Lammy said. 

Read the full report here.

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