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Monday, October 31, 2011

Big Brother is here after all

As somebody who has always been concerned about the growth of the surveillance state, I am aware that no matter how friendly a government is to civil liberties, new technology will always outstrip new legislation in its ability to intrude on people's lives.

This seems to have been confirmed by this story which suggests that Britain's largest police force is operating covert surveillance technology that can masquerade as a mobile phone network, transmitting a signal that allows authorities to shut off phones remotely, intercept communications and gather data about thousands of users in a targeted area.

They say that the surveillance system has been procured by the Metropolitan police from Leeds-based company Datong plc, which counts the US Secret Service, the Ministry of Defence and regimes in the Middle East among its customers:

Strictly classified under government protocol as "Listed X", it can emit a signal over an area of up to an estimated 10 sq km, forcing hundreds of mobile phones per minute to release their unique IMSI and IMEI identity codes, which can be used to track a person's movements in real time.

The disclosure has caused concern among lawyers and privacy groups that large numbers of innocent people could be unwittingly implicated in covert intelligence gathering. The Met has refused to confirm whether the system is used in public order situations, such as during large protests or demonstrations.

Nick Pickles, director of privacy and civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch, warned the technology could give police the ability to conduct "blanket and indiscriminate" monitoring: "It raises a number of serious civil liberties concerns and clarification is urgently needed on when and where this technology has been deployed, and what data has been gathered," he said. "Such invasive surveillance must be tightly regulated, authorised at the highest level and only used in the most serious of investigations. It should be absolutely clear that only data directly relating to targets of investigations is monitored or stored," he said.

There are issues of legality and proportionality here that need to be addressed. As the paper points out covert surveillance is currently regulated under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa), which states that to intercept communications a warrant must be personally authorised by the home secretary and be both necessary and proportionate. The terms of Ripa allow phone calls and SMS messages to be intercepted in the interests of national security, to prevent and detect serious crime, or to safeguard the UK's economic wellbeing.

How such wide ranging and indiscriminate technology fits into this frameowrk is difficult to see. There must be some clarity from government on how this device is used, what authorisation is required and how the rights of innocent civilians are protected.


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