Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Indiscriminate police spying in the UK

Surprise, surprise - the UK's police are indiscriminately spying on people's cellphones:

Controversial surveillance technology that indiscriminately harvests information from mobile phones is being used by at least seven police forces across the country, a far larger number than previously known, according to police documents.

The hardware, known as an IMSI catcher, tricks mobile phone handsets across an area of several miles into connecting to them by impersonating cellphone towers, and can be used to pinpoint phone owners’ locations or intercept phone calls and text messages.

The Metropolitan police were previously known to have purchased IMSI (international mobile subscriber identity) technology. However, documents obtained by the Bristol Cable, a citizen’s media cooperative, indicate that at least six other police forces have bought the same hardware, also referred to as CCDC (covert communications data capture).

Police refuse to acknowledge their acquisition of this technology or discuss how they use it, claiming that any disclosures could assist criminals and terrorists. As well as the Met, other forces understood to be using it include West Mercia, Warwickshire, West Midlands, Staffordshire, Avon and Somerset, and South Yorkshire.

The problem here is that this isn't the individual surveillance of a wiretap. Instead, IMSI is a trawler which grabs everything in the area and feeds it to police. So in addition to the person they're looking at, they also get the calls, call data and private information of hundreds of even thousands of innocent bystanders. And while there's obvious value in being able to track an individual cellphone (with an appropriate warrant, of course), this is a grossly disproportionate invasion of the public's privacy.

But I guess that's just business as usual now for a country which tracks every vehicle movement on major roads with ANPR and spies on every bit transiting the internet with GCHQ. The UK is an authoritarian surveillance state which has utter contempt for the privacy of its citizens. Those who value privacy, democracy and human rights should get out while they still can.

Meanwhile, someone has used FYI, the public OIA request site, to ask a similar question of New Zealand Police. The police clearly don't want to answer, because they've tried demanding the requester go to a police station and fill out a physical form - something which is simply unlawful (and an abuse of the public's respect for police). And I expect that in 20 working days - or more, because they're usually late - the police will simply refuse to respond because telling us whether they're spying in this way and how much it costs might threaten "the maintenance of the law".