London police 'hack' suspects' phones: A major blow to human rights

London police 'hack' suspects' phones: A major blow to human rights

Summary: London's police service will soon be allowed to 'hack' into phones of suspected criminals. This criminologist examines how dangerous this move is for ordinary citizens.


London's Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) has sparked controversy after it trained police officers to "extract mobile phone data" from arrested suspects held in police custody.

First reported by the BBC, the data collection can take no more than a few minutes, and collects a users' call history, text messages, emails, and phone contacts.

But U.K. and European data protection regulators are pricking up their ears, and could investigate the Scotland Yard-based police force. Campaign group Privacy International warned it could even breach European human rights laws.

As a criminologist, I see this as perhaps the single most damaging policy enacted by a U.K. police force in nearly five years. Here's why.

The decision made by the MPS seems to contradict --- or at least come close to bordering --- on a ruling set out by the European Court of Human Rights in 2008, in which apparent evidence from those acquitted from police suspicion or criminal charges had to be destroyed.

When a suspect is arrested, their DNA is swabbed from their mouths and entered into the U.K.'s National DNA Database. Not only does it help active investigations determine who may be of interest, it also helps solve historical or 'cold' cases.

But what is important to note is that those who are arrested are merely suspected of committing a crime. Those who are charged are deemed by the U.K.'s prosecuting body, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), to have likely committed the crime and a criminal court case should begin.

The DNA bank was ultimately deemed illegal by the European court because those who were arrested but not charged still had their DNA in the database. The samples had to be destroyed leaving much of the U.K.'s police forces without what they considered to be vital evidence.

The "no charge, no DNA" ruling was a huge victory for British human rights.

But data protection and human rights officials in the U.K. and Europe will likely be wondering whether cellphone and smartphone data is as personal and as identifiable as DNA.

Speaking to the BBC, a spokesperson for Privacy International said:

"It is illegal to indefinitely retain the DNA profiles of individuals after they are acquitted or released without charge, and the communications, photos and location data contained in most people's smartphones is at least as valuable and as personal as DNA."

A spokesperson for the E.U. Internal Affairs Commissioner, which deals with cases of human rights, was unavailable at the time of writing.

A European Commission spokesperson was unable to answer all of my questions, because the executive body "is closed today". Apparently even bureaucrats' need days off.

A spokesperson for the E.U. Justice Commissioner said it "does not fall under the current data protection 1995 Directive as it excludes in Article 3 data processed for the purpose of crime prevention and state security".

They said I should probably follow up with the U.K.'s data protection authority, the Information Commission's Office (ICO). So I did.

An ICO spokesperson told ZDNet:

"Whilst we are not aware of this particular development, any personal information taken from an individual’s phone or other possessions and then held by the police during an investigation would have to comply with the Data Protection Act --- including its requirement to process personal data fairly and lawfully, not hold excessive or irrelevant personal data or hold it for longer than necessary.”

Plugging in a suspect's phone and downloading all its data indiscriminately could indeed breach the Data Protection Act.

There is no doubt that cellphones and smartphones are increasingly being used to commit crime. But this pushes the boat out to such a limit that the rights of British citizens, and others who visit the country, that human rights may be violated as a result.

While the MPS said that police officers can collect phone data "can happen only if there is sufficient suspicion the mobile phone was used for criminal activity," the

But charging a suspect requires evidence collected by police and detectives to be passed on to a Crown body, the CPS, to carefully decide whether formal charges should be brought against a subject. It's an independent and well-established body with processes and policies to protect not only the suspected criminal's rights but also those of the public.

From a criminological point of view, though police are accountable to a separate body of its own --- the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) --- the level of subjective suspicion now left in the hands of ordinary police officers is astounding. Frankly it gives too much power to police officers, notwithstanding their level of national security vetting and extensive training, and could be abused without proper and due process.

It is my view that only those charged, where sufficient evidence is presented to warrant judicial action, with an offence by the CPS should have any data collected. Even with this, data should be selectively collected, stored securely, and deleted once it is no longer needed.

The MPS, if it succeeds without legal challenge, would set a dangerous European-wide precedent which would put more power in the hands of the police and ultimately fewer rights away from ordinary citizens.

Disclosure: I currently work with a U.K. law enforcement unit. This is an entirely separate position which bears no connection to other work with CBS Interactive.

Image credit: Steve Punter/Flickr via CNET.


Topics: Mobility, Hardware, Smartphones

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Becoming common practice in US.

    In most cases US law allows for indefinite preservation of evidence gathered during or after an arrest. Cellphones and mobile devices are classed as "containers" that may be opened and examined for evidence if they are in the possession of the suspect at time of arrest.

    The evidence might not be admissible at trial if the arrest or search are later deemed to be rights violations, but it still doesn't get "wiped" since police may use it to aid in further investigations or generic intelligence gathering. And overall in the US, the effectiveness of the "exclusionary rule" has dwindled greatly over the past 30 years as more and more court decisions have narrowed the scope of police misconduct that would trigger the rule.

    It sounds like you are still better off in the UK ...
    terry flores
    • Yes, you can "see"

      It's easy to "see" they're better off in the UK. Just pull up any of the millions of security cams available (to law enforcement) throughout the land. I love Big Brother.

      Orwell out.
  • "Will soon be allowed..."?

    Is there a new act of Parliament that authorizes this, or is there some other mystery? If it is a new law, you'd be doing your British readers a service by giving them a means of determining how their MPs voted.
    John L. Ries
  • Dork

    Don't get arrested.
    Don't have terrorist numbers in your phone.
    • And how do we determine that?

      Do terrorists have signs on their foreheads proclaiming their status? Do they not have neighbors, employers, friends, family members, and other acquaintances who are unaware of their political activities?

      As far as I know, I don't know any terrorists, but I can't be certain.
      John L. Ries
  • Security has a great side effect

    North Korea after all is the safest place in the world. There hardly any crime, no street gangs, very little theft, few murders. You can walk at night in safety, a policeman is always there if you need one, even plainclothes ones.
    • Point well taken

      It's still not a place I'd like to live, even if I do have some knowledge of the language.
      John L. Ries
    • No food

      And they have no mobile phones, Internet or food.