Concerns Over Police Capture of Smartphone Data

By law are the Police allowed to do this ?

Privacy International has asked the Investigatory Powers Commissioner (IPCO) to look at the use of data extraction technology by the UK police.

Around half of the forces in the UK have the technology to download all data from a smartphone, with a further 17% considering its use in the future.

These devices are called data extraction kits, and cost a few hundred pounds. Because they connect directly to the phone’s motherboard, they can access more data than a cable connection.

Privacy International think that the amount of data that these downloading tools can extract may be excessive, and police forces lack clear guidelines about proportionate use. For example, a police force might be looking for a particular text message, but rather than downloading that one message, they just grab all the messages, photos, banking data, and health tracking information.

In fact, there are fears that data extraction kits are technically a type of hacking device, at least as far as the law is concerned.

Snooping in UK Law

Ever since the Investigatory Powers Act became law, privacy campaigners have been keeping a close eye on the activities of the British authorities.

Many argue that the powers it grants them are far too broad, and essentially legalise mass surveillance on people who are not suspected of crimes. This has been partially tested in court already.

Another issue is the inconsistency of use. Right now, there are no clear guidelines on how the police can use these devices, and whether the way they are using them is lawful. Privacy International contacted police forces to ask them this question; some simply use the manufacturer’s user guide, and have no other documentation.

Nothing to Hide?

Whenever there’s a news story about surveillance, there will always be a nagging doubt at the back of some people’s minds: if I have nothing to hide, why should I fear this kind of data extraction?

The problem is that there can be abuses of these privileges, particularly when no warrant is required to access the contents of your phone. You may not have done anything illegal, but you probably still have good reasons to keep your own private life private.

The police can download all of the data from a victim’s phone as well as a criminal’s, and there have been cases where the victim’s data has been shared with the alleged abuser. In a 2016 case, the suspect -- who was a police officer -- was provided with the contents of his alleged victim’s phone. According to the media, the files he was given had nothing to do with the accusations against him.

There are similar arguments against the Investigatory Powers Act, which made state snooping legal in the UK. One of the key elements of the law was the tracking of websites that every internet user visited, and the subsequent pooling of that data in a massive database that police forces and other organisations could search through.

In theory, there would be nothing to stop an ex-partner, employer, or nosy neighbour rifling through the database to find out what you do online, and there could be a disproportionate focus on downloading data from minorities and vulnerable people.

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