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Police forced to reveal info on mass mobile phone spying, following Cable investigation

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Privacy International ruling an ‘important victory for government transparency’ after two-year battle.

Illustration: Louis Wood

In 2016, the Cable published an investigation revealing that Avon and Somerset police and six other police forces had purchased controversial surveillance gear that can track thousands of mobile phones in a large area, eavesdrop on calls, read text messages, and even block handsets’ signal.

Since then another two forces have since been added to the list of forces with the technology, known as IMSI-catchers.

Without government transparency, experts and campaigners have feared that police could misuse the powerful technology at the expense of innocent people, and interfere in legitimate activities. For example, there were tell tale signs that IMSI-catchers had been used to monitor and collect information on people attending anti-austerity protests and even in and around the Houses of Parliament.

For years IMSI-catchers have been exported from the UK to repressive regimes such as UAE, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. From this investigation came proof that it was in the hands of multiple UK police forces, including Avon and Somerset.

As part of a national campaign and a parliamentary report by the Cable, a barrister and civil liberty expert argued that IMSI-catchers violated human rights by spying on all mobile phones within their reach. Government was urged to safeguard the public.

Drawing on the Cable’s findings, the privacy and human rights charity Privacy International challenged the police via the data watchdog – the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) – to come clean about their use.

After a two-year battle, the ICO ruled in favour of Privacy International that police forces must reveal some information related to IMSI-catchers.

A spokesperson for the Privacy International said:

“For nearly two years, Privacy International has fought to increase transparency around law enforcement acquisition and regulation of IMSI catchers, which has long been shrouded in secrecy.

“We relied on evidence uncovered in the Bristol Cable’s investigation to bolster the case with the ICO and make this ruling possible.”

Public officials have consistently stayed tight-lipped on IMSI-catchers. Meanwhile Freedom of Information (FOI) requests were entirely stonewalled by police forces, which refused to admit if they owned or used IMSI-catchers, or share any other related information.

Now, Privacy International have called the ruling an important victory for government transparency and information access rights.

Police will now have to share the legislation, codes of practice, and marketing materials related to IMSI-catchers. A spokesperson for Avon and Somerset Police confirmed that the force will comply with the ICO’s decision.

The ICO did however rule that police could withhold internal policies, as well as contracts and other records regarding use of the surveillance technology.

Privacy International, represented by human rights charity Liberty, will appeal the ICO’s decision, challenging police forces’ refusal to disclose information on their purchase and use of IMSI catchers.

The Cable will continue to investigate and follow developments on this issue.

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