London's Metropolitan police have acquired technology which allows them to intercept mobile phone calls and SMS messages, switch off phones remotely and gather data about users in a target area.
The technology, created by UK company Datong, creates fake mobile networks and tricks mobile phones within a 10 square kilometre radius into using it. The surveillance system is then able to spy on the phone's communications and access the phone's identification numbers, IMEI and IMSI, which give away the user's location and can be used to shut down the phone.
One positive use of this technology is to enable law enforcers to locate and shut down a mobile phone that may be used as a trigger for a bomb.
However, civil rights campaigners fear that the technology will infringe on privacy rights and data protection.
Nick Pickles of Big Brother Watch said: "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.
"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."
Datong creates solutions for intelligence gathering which are distributed throughout the Americas, Africa, the Middle East and the Far East. Its customers include the US Secret Service, the Ministry of Defence and certain Middle East regimes.
According to The Guardian newspaper, in 2008/9, the Metropolitan police paid Datong £143,455 for "ICT hardware".
Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa), to intercept communications police must obtain a warrant authorised by the Home Secretary, and it must be considered necessary and proportionate for them to do so.
Jonathan Lennon, a barrister specialising in cases concerning covert intelligence gathering, has questioned whether Ripa is being adhered to by the Met police.
He said: "How can a device which invades any number of people's privacy be proportionate? 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 compliant with the act.
"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."
A spokesman for the Metropolitan police said: "Although we do not discuss specific technology or tactics, we can re-assure those who live and work in London that any activity we undertake is in compliance with legislation and codes of practice."
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