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

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.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor

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.


Editorial standards