London's Met Police uses 'blanket tracking system' to intercept, remotely shut down mobile phones

London's Met Police uses 'blanket tracking system' to intercept, remotely shut down mobile phones

Summary: London's police service can not only track and trace your mobile phone, but remotely shut it down and intercept phone calls and text messages, it has emerged.


London's Metropolitan Police, headquartered at Scotland Yard, has been accused by privacy campaigners of violating citizens' privacy and civil liberties, after it was discovered that the police service had acquired military-grade surveillance equipment to track and if necessary, disable mobile phones.

London's police service has been under increased pressure to bolster its provisions post the London riots during the summer, in the run up to the Olympic games next year. Yet, privacy campaigners are concerned with the police service becoming 'another MI5'.

(Source: Flickr, CC)

First uncovered by The Guardian, the Metropolitan Police is operating covert mobile phone surveillance and tracking technology, which can not only masquerade as a legitimate cell network, but can also remotely shut down phones, and intercept the incoming and outgoing communications of phones over a blanket radius.

Procured from a Leeds-based company in the north of England, Datong plc. works as a covert surveillance technology manufacturer, and has a list of clientele not limited to the U.S. Secret Service and the UK's Ministry of Defence, as well as connections with some less than favourable governments with poor human rights records in the Middle East.

Holding one of the highest levels of classified sensitivity, the device is 'suitcase-sized', and can broadcast cell coverage to an estimated 10 square kilometer areas, forcing hundreds of mobile phones into releasing their unique cellular identity codes. These codes can then be used to track the location and movement of mobile phone users in real-time.

Not only this, the technology can be used -- if authorised under existing UK laws by the relevant authority -- to intercept text messages and phone calls, but also to 'denial-of-service' the phone into forcing it to shut down. This can be used to disarm a remote-controlled bomb, or worse -- a threat from a nuclear, biological or radiological device -- something the UK has 'expected' for some years, since the threat of nuclear terrorism rose in the mid-2000's.

The UK government has been silently concerned over widespread disorder that erupted during the summer, in semi-coordinated rioting with BlackBerry Messenger used as a conduit, but also the run up to the 2012 London Olympics. The domestic security service, MI5, continues to threat-assess the current environment in a post-Arab Spring world.

According to CNET, the FBI purchased a similar, known as 'Triggerfish', to track cell phone users, but "could not intercept phone calls, emails or text messages".

A Freedom of Information Act request to Scotland Yard shows that the police service paid £143,455 ($230,000) to Datong plc. for "ICT hardware" in 2008/2009, with Hertfordshire police service paying £8,373 ($13,300) in February 2011.

A look into the secretive company that provides the hardware shows to some extent how it fits into the world stage. Though its customers are on the most part shrouded in secrecy, Datong plc. has a global reach -- and to places not necessarily thought of a year ago.

Between 2009 and 2010, the company's revenues grew 2,072% from the "rest of the world", a region outside the UK, the Americas and Europe. This itself points to Africa, the Middle East and Asia, where ongoing conflicts perpetuate the growth of the company where its intelligence and surveillance technologies are used.

In one document on the company's website, Datong plc. affirms further the reach of its business, and gives an idea of where a large portion of its profits come from "current conflicts":

"We continue to bene?t from the increase in spend in the defence and security industries following the recent major terrorist attacks in the US, UK and Indonesia, the continued spread of organised crime throughout the world and the current con?icts in the Middle East and Asia."

As The Guardian notes, a UK government department blocked the export of a licence to an "unnamed Asia-Pacific country" after it was thought the technology could be used to commit human rights abuses.

For which police unit this is for, it is not clear. If, as it is suspected, it belongs to SO15 -- Scotland Yard's Counter Terrorism Unit, as a national unit it would have funds outside that of the London authorities, spreading the financial burden across multiple police and intelligence services.

Hertfordshire covers the county to the north of London, close to where the riots were focused over the summer.

Within a week of the riots in London subsiding, domestic security service, MI5 was called in to 'crack the BlackBerry encryption' after it was found that the in-built instant messenger service was being used to perpetuate and organise disorder.

One industry specialist told me that, "the 'basic functions' of the phone, with its unique-tracking codes like the IMEI, may be retrievable, but the content on BlackBerry devices are secured with government-grade security", adding: "The location of the device could in theory be traced and tracked in real-time, but 'advanced' security nature of the phone would resist attacks to its encrypted content".

While SMS and phone calls may be intercepted on the BlackBerry, it is believed that 'server-side' encryption to BlackBerry Messenger and enterprise email would remain secure.

The UK's wiretap and surveillance laws, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) 2003, governs when certain widescale intelligence gathering mechanisms should fall into place. These warrants are not easy to get, and require the signature of the UK's home secretary or one of the highest levels of senior police officers available to front-line units.

Though the surveillance under RIPA 2003 has to be "proportionate and/or necessary", in 2010 there were 1,682 intercepting warrants signed off by the home secretary, with over 552,000 requests made by local councils and regional government. These include threats of terrorism, all the way down to a local council officer snooping on a suspected dog-foulers, or persistent litter droppers.

Datong declined to comment. Scotland Yard was unavailable for comment at the time of publication.


Topics: United Kingdom, Government, BlackBerry, Smartphones

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  • RE: London's Met Police uses 'blanket tracking system' to intercept, remotely shut down mobile phones

    I see an outcry and a few lawsuits coming down the pike in the near future.
  • RE: London's Met Police uses 'blanket tracking system' to intercept, remotely shut down mobile phones

    It's not that the London police can do this that scares me, its that if they can do it then someone else or some rogue group can do it too.
    • RE: London's Met Police uses 'blanket tracking system' to intercept, remotely shut down mobile phones

      @LoverockDavidson_ You should be scared that your Police force can do this.
      • RE: London's Met Police uses 'blanket tracking system' to intercept, remotely shut down mobile phones

        Lovie Dovey is always scared, period. ;)
  • Warrants should be issued by courts, not ministers

    I know things aren't done in the UK in the same way as in the US, but I think I'd be a bit nervous about giving an overtly partisan cabinet officer the authority to order wiretaps, as the potential for political mischief is endless.
    John L. Ries
  • RE: London's Met Police uses 'blanket tracking system' to intercept, remotely shut down mobile phones

    There was a reason why the forefathers of the United States were afraid of "big and an over-reaching govt.", it was due to the practices of the British Monarchy (amongst other). While the type of govt. has changed, the forefathers of the United States would still be afraid of what's happening in the UK and would probably pass laws preventing this from happening in the United States.
    • RE: London's Met Police uses 'blanket tracking system' to intercept, remotely shut down mobile phones


      Right.... Instead, we have the so-called Patriot Act here in the U.S. And the Posse Comitatus Act is no longer followed either. Government was to be small, with enumerated powers only, in the U.S. It has become our overlords! :(

      WHO GOES HOME?!?!
      • Do you think your phone calls to your friends & familiy are being monitored

        in the same way that the Patriot Act allows phone tapping of known and suspected bad actors?
    • RE: London's Met Police uses 'blanket tracking system' to intercept, remotely shut down mobile phones

      @duplai@... You are way too naive.
  • RE: London's Met Police uses 'blanket tracking system' to intercept, remotely shut down mobile phones

    Glad they can??t track BBM messages and Blackberries in general. Yet...
    • RE: London's Met Police uses 'blanket tracking system' to intercept, remotely shut down mobile phones

      @SinfoCOMAR - They can track Blackberries, and while they can't read the messages easily, their recourse is to simply shut down the network access so you can't either.

      These boxes all work by mimicking and overriding the standard cellphone network management protocols. Your phone thinks it is talking to a legitimate cell tower, which spoofs it into doing whatever the cops want. This is different from the much cheaper "cellphone jammers" that simply prevent the phone from communicating at all to the network.

      As Loverock said, it's not only the government we have to worry about, these boxes could be acquired by foreign agents or industrial spies, and the stakes are mind-boggling. Imagine setting up one of these units around Wall Street and listening to insider info, it could potentially be worth billions.
      terry flores
  • RE: London's Met Police uses 'blanket tracking system' to intercept, remotely shut down mobile phones

    When I was a little kid, I believed in Santa Claus. He was going to visit me at midnight. I grew up and replaced Santa with the M.I.B. who will also visit me at midnight. Sometimes the myth of an action is as good as an actual action, so stay paranoid. They're watching YOU even if only in your own mind's eye.
  • Who goes home?!?!

    It's time for y'all Brits to go back and read your Chesterton -- starting with "The Flying Inn". See what you've become as a nation and as a people. And yes, the same holds for Americans, Spaniards, etc. We've forgotten our roots, where our rights come from, and failed to delineate what is tolerable or not. It's time for men to become men again and do something about it!
    • RE: London's Met Police uses 'blanket tracking system' to intercept, remotely shut down mobile phones

      @techboy_z I agree, people the world over have gone soft and a lot of this stuff is getting more aggressive because no one fights them on it.
  • Hackers also have this capability; cheaper too...

    A researcher at the Def Con security conference in Las Vegas demonstrated that he could impersonate a GSM cell tower and intercept mobile phone calls using only $1500 worth of equipment. The cost-effective solution brings mobile phone snooping to the masses...

    He used software from the GNU Radio project, a free software tool kit for building and deploying software-defined-radio systems, and to the availability of relatively inexpensive Universal Software Radio Peripheral high-speed computer boards for making software radios.
  • Does anyone really believe this is for Terrorism?

    Does anyone in the UK really believe the BS line that this is all in the name of fighting terrorism? Governments around the world use the ???It???s for Terrorism??? excuse line more these days than the previous decades popular excuse, ???its for the children???. By invoking ???For the children??? and now ???To Fight Terrorism??? the governments been allowed to commit all kinds of atrocities against the public with this ability to shut down remote phones being just one of the most recent.

    It comes down to this; governments lie, period. Psychopaths are driven to positions of power and government provides the best place for them to satisfy their need to dominate others. If you think this ability to kill phones is just to fight against middle eastern men in turbans then you need to open your eyes and your ears and turn off that boob tube that???s rotting your brain.

    The ability to kill remote cell phones is nothing more than a tool for silencing dissent and preventing people from organizing in opposition to their government and this will only get worse until the people decide enough is enough. If anyone challenges warnings about out of control government with ???That???s Conspiracy Theory??? you need to challenge them and investigate for yourself as the chances are great they either are ignorant about what they say or they have sold out/bought into the scam and are doing their part to quell the public while the government strips everyone of every right, freedom and liberty it can.

    I???m also interested to see if any of the media & news figures who liked to use the ???That???s conspiracy Theory??? line in the past in response to warnings about government having this kind of capability, if they are now going to admit they were wrong or if (more likely) they are going to just pretend they never said that. Many a warnings about out of control government that were frequently met with the ???Conspiracy Theory??? tag line are turning out to be true as forewarned. The question is how many more of these so called Conspiracy Theory government related warning???s need to come to fruition before the majority of the public will realize that something is not right and has to be changed?
  • Freedom is good for Egypt, Lybia and Seria but not the UK

    Bravo, techboy_z, well said. Protesting is a right of nationals in a free and open society. If people feel the need to protest then this may indicate government is not doing its job-serving the people in which case it must be obligated to listen, consider and respond as required. Unfortunately in the UK and Canada the members of government swear an oath to the Crown and not the nations that pay them and supposedly elected them.
    • So, when have any of those countries ever experienced any real freedom?

      Egypt and Lybia just went through civil wars, and Syria is in the midst of one. But, which of the opposing warring factions, in any of those wars, promises to bring "real freedoms" to the people in any of those countries?
      • RE: London's Met Police uses 'blanket tracking system' to intercept, remotely shut down mobile phones

        @adornoe@... Probably none of them.
    • Oath to the crown

      @mario@... <br>Somehow, I doubt that the oaths crown officials swear to Queen Elizabeth do anything to discourage them from respecting the rights of her subjects. In a British context, they seem mostly to be a commitment to follow the law and uphold duly constituted authority, much like the oaths U.S. officials take to support the U.S. Constitution. I'm under the impression that British monarchs in turn promise to uphold the law and the rights of their subjects when they're crowned.<br><br>Interestingly enough, public officials in the U.S. swear allegiance to the federal and state constitutions, but not directly to the people or even the nation. This is probably a good thing as it eliminates a common excuse for coups d'etat.<br><br>Besides, Ministers of the British Crown are no more elected officials than are U.S. cabinet officers. It's the House of Commons to whom those ministers are responsible that is elected. MPs are, in turn, responsible to their constituents for the official acts of the ministers to the extent that they fail to oppose those acts.
      John L. Ries