Privacy Group Files Legal Complaint Over UK Law Enforcement's Warrantless Phone Searches

from the we-did-it-because-no-one-said-not-to dept

Privacy International, which has successfully challenged UK surveillance programs, is bringing its heat to the local level. In a report PI released towards the end of March, the group noted several law enforcement agencies were seizing and searching phones -- often deploying forensic software -- without warrants. This went further than devices owned by criminal suspects. Searches were also performed on phones of crime victims and witnesses.

At no point does it appear warrants were sought. Documents obtained by PI showed UK police forces are operating under a melange of self-written policies or citing random portions of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) to support their warrantless searches. It also appears there is no national oversight of this process, which has allowed this current policy patchwork to develop.

This is working out badly for UK citizens, as Privacy International points out.

Data can be taken from victims, witnesses and suspects without informing them. With no clear policies or guidance on the use of this technology, individuals are unaware of their legal rights in terms of:

- Whether data is only taken when necessary and proportionate;

- Getting the police to delete this data when there is no legal reason to retain it, particularly if they are innocent of any crime;

- Ensuring data is held securely to prevent exposure of their personal data as a result of loss of records, misuse or security breach.

Since it appears leaving law enforcement agencies to their own devices (and those owned by others) is only making things worse, Privacy International is pressing the issue.

Campaigners from U.K.-based Privacy International have formally complained about British police being able to download the contents of people’s phones—phones, photos, even fragments of deleted conversations—without a warrant.

While warrants are required to do this in countries such as the U.S., in the U.K. dozens of police forces point to various pieces of legislation to support the idea that they don’t need them. Privacy International says the practice is illegal, however, and has complained to the Information Commissioner’s Office, the British privacy regulator.

PI points to the UK's Data Protection Act, which provides protection for citizens from government harvesting of data and communications. This is being circumvented by common law enforcement practices that neither inform device owners of the extent of the search nor seek informed consent before performing forensic searches. On top of that, data housed in devices may fall under other protections as well. Phones can contain privileged communications with legal representation or information about journalists' sources.

It also notes the updated Data Protection Act, meant to align the UK with the EU's General Data Protection Regulation, will make these efforts even more illegal than they already are. PI is pretty sure law enforcement agencies won't have these policies rewritten before the new law comes into force, which means its complaint will still be on solid legal ground even after the new law is enacted.

This is what happens when law enforcement obtains powerful tech but answers to almost no one. The lack of oversight -- at local or national level -- has allowed law enforcement to perform invasive searches with a minimum of notification or paperwork. Hopefully, this will change soon.

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  • identicon
    carlb, 8 May 2018 @ 5:40am

    I take the 3rd

    I suppose this saves the onerous cost of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland quartering soldiers in your home in peacetime without your consent, something the Third Amendment rabble were on about incessantly. Like this misguided FATCA legislation that the US was forcing on other, supposedly-sovereign countries, all that's needed is to post a virtual sentry in your home. Same result, but cheaper.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 May 2018 @ 6:57am

    I guess freedom of information is a one way street?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 May 2018 @ 8:03am

    this is what happens when one nation is so keen to align/remain aligned (UK) with another nation (USA) when that other nation doesn't give a flyin fuck about privacy, freedom or freedom of speech anymore, preferring to go down the road of total surveillance, stopping anyone, anytime, for no reason other than the color of their skin, or original nationality. nothing is more important in the USA now, or so it seems, than being able to watch everyone, examine their devices, with no search warrants, no evidence and no oversight! security services and law enforcement agencies, ably abetted by the states/nations legal representatives have all but destroyed the fundamental rights of citizens, have removed protections and made much of the Constitution no better than toilet paper, all because the 'leaders' want to turn the nation into a 'police state', able to do what it wants, anywhere in the world, but able, at the same time, to NOT give the same options to anywhere else!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    RichP, 8 May 2018 @ 8:39am

    The UK does not have a 'Law Enforcement' service.

    A subtle distinction, but UK is "policed by consent". They're only allowed to use force if other means have been exhausted, but are permitted to use any means of keeping the peace that the average man in the street might think appropriate.

    The plus side is that they don't shoot you without really good reason. The minus side is that most people aren't really worried about police surveillance of 'the baddies'.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 May 2018 @ 9:58am

    But crime will go down...

    Searches were also performed on phones of crime victims and witnesses.

    It's a great way to doctor the statistics. Who's going to report a crime if they expect this kind of privacy invasion to result?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    discordian_eris (profile), 8 May 2018 @ 1:10pm

    "This is what happens when law enforcement obtains powerful tech but answers to almost no one."

    The tech's level of sophistication is irrelevant. It's the lack of meaningful oversight that is the problem. In the end it doesn't matter if they hoover your phone or do a black bag job on your flat. The mere fact that they are allowed to do so at all is what makes all of this dangerous to everyone else.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 May 2018 @ 10:17am

    Did I miss something? How are these searches performed - over the airwaves, with physical control, or what?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Wendy Cockcroft, 10 May 2018 @ 2:24am


    I've just completed a GDPR course: these new regulations apply outside the EU and will no doubt be baked into any FTA it does with Britain post Brexit. If the UK's government thought Brexit was a get-out-of-jail-free card, it's mistaken.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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