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Phoney net: UK police can blanket-track mobile phones

Published time: November 01, 2011 08:46
Edited time: November 01, 2011 13:05
UK police can blanket-track mobile phones

UK police can blanket-track mobile phones

Britain’s Metropolitan Police have purchased a system which can identify, track and possibly shut off every cell phone in a 10-square kilometer area. The Orwellian system has raised concerns over potential abuses and violations of privacy.

The system, produced by the company Datong, uses a special transmitter, which emits a signal masquerading that of a regular mobile network, reports The Guardian newspaper. It forces all phones in the target area to release their identification codes for both devices and SIM cards they use. It can also track those mobile phones in real time.

Other equipment the company produces can intercept communications, including text messages, and force the devices to shut off from the network, presumably to prevent the use of mobile phones to trigger bombs.

In addition to the Met Police, Datong lists among its clients organizations like the UK Ministry of Defence, the US Secret Service and Special Operations Command, as well as security and defense forces in the Middle Eastern countries.

Human rights activists believe the system capable of blanket and indiscriminate surveillance violates privacy.

"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," Nick Pickles, director of privacy and civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch said. "Such invasive surveillance must be tightly regulated, authorized 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."

Lawyer Jonathan Lennon, who specializes in cases involving covert intelligence and Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), which mandates how the authorities can intercept private communication, says the system may not comply with the legislation. 

"There needs to be clarification on whether interception of multiple people's communications – when you can't even necessarily identify who the people are – is complaint with the act,” he said. “It may be another case of the technology racing ahead of the legislation. Because if this technology now allows multiple tracking and intercept to take place at the same time, I would have thought that was not what parliament had in mind when it drafted RIPA."

Neither the Metropolitan Police nor Datong commented to the newspaper on how the system classified as “Listed X” is used and whether or not it can be deployed during large protests and demonstrations or riots.

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