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U.K. police mobile device extraction tech raises eyebrows, study


U.K. police are secretly deploying technology which allows them to download all of the content and data from someone's phone on a questionably legal basis due to a lack of clarity in the law, according to a recent report.

Privacy International's Digital Stop and Search report found that 26 out of 47 police forces that were submitted Freedom of Information requests, admitted to using mobile phone extraction technology.

An additional eight forces that were queried have previously tried the technology or intend to do so in the future, while an additional 13 percent refused to respond or said they have no information about the technology.

Researchers said that when police confiscate physical possessions, the owner is entitled to an inventory of those items, but when departments confiscate someone's data the owner may not be aware the information was ever taken.

“The technology, which has been rolled out nationally following its use by the Metropolitan Police Service during the London Olympics in 2012, gives the police the ability to obtain data from our phones than we cannot access ourselves and which we do not know exists,” the report said. “Without public consultation or parliamentary scrutiny, the police want extraction of data to be standard procedure in all criminal investigations.”

The organization said the lack of warranty, record keeping, and independent oversight for mobile extraction creates the risk for the abuse of power and discriminatory practices.

Researchers also called into question the practice of retaining the information collected as it is unclear victims, witnesses and suspects, including those released without charge or found innocent, are aware that personal information may have been taken from their phones without their knowledge, the report said.

It's also unclear if consent is given by the user to the police force to extract data from mobile phones, how informed is that consent, what happens to the data that is copied from the device, if data is shared with other bodies, and how securely data is stored.

“The police are continually failing to be transparent with the thousands of people whose phones they are secretly downloading data from,” Millie Graham Wood, a solicitor at Privacy International, said in a press release.

“An immediate independent review into this practice should be initiated by the Home Office and College of Policing, with widespread consultation with the public, to find the right balance of powers for the police and protections for the public. Let's be clear — at the moment, the police have all the power and the public have no protections.”

In order to address these issues, researchers said there needs to be an urgent independent review into the use of the technology as well as for the establishment of published guidance for the public, regarding their rights if the police want to search their mobile phone.

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