Evidence points to Kent Police and other police forces having bought devices that can spy on thousands of phones at a time.
CCDC is for Covert Communications Data Capture‘ which means IMSI catcher. Our Public face wrote to Alan Pughsley Chief Constable of Kent (pictured) asking him and his force if they use IMSI catchers. The response was “we can neither confirm nor deny using them.”
While these purchases have been on public record for a while, it was not known what the acronym (CCDC) stood for until now. Unredacted minutes [PDF page 2] of a meeting this May between West Mercia and Warwickshire police, which the Cable obtained and published, let slip the meaning of the acronym with a subheading titled “Covert Communications Data Capture (CCDC)”.
In kent-polices-accounts-2015-16 [pdf page 50] the term ‘Covert Communications Data Capture is used.
So how do IMIS catchers’ work.
The technology works by exploiting the fact that mobile phones constantly seek the strongest possible signal in order to make and receive calls and data. IMSI catchers present themselves as the strongest signal in the area, prompting all nearby mobile phones to connect to them.
The technology then routes the signal to a normal mobile mast, allowing the phones to continue to function, albeit with all the data potentially being scrutinised by whoever is controlling the IMSI catcher.
The potential scope of IMSI-catchers’ capabilities is frightening. The data they harvest; which can be up to 500 phones every minute within an 8km (5miles) radius, creates a live-updating map of everyone in a certain area. Some models can intercept hundreds of mobiles a minute. The devices can also block communications, and in some cases can intercept the text messages and phone calls – and read or listen to them – of thousands of people in the vicinity.
Matthew Ellis, the police and crime commissioner for Staffordshire informed The Guardian“It is right that police have the tools to tackle the complex nature of crime in the 21st century. Some tactics police use to keep people safe and bring criminals to justice can be intrusive and it is crucial that there are robust safeguards, framed by legislation, around this work, and there are.”
However, Matthew Rice advocacy officer for UK-based charity Privacy International of has said “The findings – by revealing the codename – show that many police forces in the UK have invested in covert communications surveillance technology, yet the secrecy around them does not inspire confidence that the police are willing to be subjected to the level of scrutiny these powerful capabilities ought to attract,” Rice adds. “If they have nothing to hide, they have nothing to fear.”
It is as yet unclear whether Kent Police have used IMSI-catchers and, if so, in what operational context. All Kent Police would say is that they “can neither confirm nor deny” the use of IMSI catchers’.
This lack of transparency is to no one’s benefit. The longer the policy of denial of existence of these capabilities go on, the worse it is for Kent police, citizens, and civil liberties across the UK.
Such powers may also fall outside of the law. “It is inconceivable that using devices built to indiscriminately intercept and hack up to 500 phones every minute within an 8km radius can be lawful,” says Silkie Carlo, a policy officer for human rights organisation Liberty.
Legal or not, Kent Police are in possession of this invasive technology. But many key questions remain unanswered: exactly why are police forces purchasing IMSI-catchers, how are they being used and who is being targeted?