Revealed: Kent’s Police and Mass Mobile Phone Surveillance
Posted on January 5, 2017 // 0 Comments
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)”.
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 informedThe 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?
When Kent Police force eventually comes clean, they may justify IMSI-catcher use in cases of searching for missing persons, or tracking murderers at large. Some will accept that logic, and readily relinquish their privacy to aid the state in such cases. But with responsibility comes risk, especially when one considers how else the technology can be used – and that almost all of us carry mobile phones.
Picture a different scenario: the lawyer’s confidential conversation with their client being tapped. The journalist speaking to a whistleblower, unaware that they are being eavesdropped. Or demonstrators being spied on and added to a monitoring list.
“[There are] concerns IMSI-catchers are targeting peaceful protesters exercising their democratic rights,” says Carlo. Indeed, Vice News and Privacy International uncovered telltale signs of IMSI-catcher use at an anti-austerity demonstration in London last year. But without parliamentary debate and legal scrutiny we cannot hope to fully understand or, better, begin to dictate the contexts in which these devices are deployed.
“Refusal to come clean on the use of IMSI-catchers must trigger an urgent investigation by the Interception of Communications Commissioner,” concludes Carlo. “How else is the public to have any confidence in proportionate policing?” After all, if Kent Police have nothing to hide…