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UK Police Exploit Legal Loophole to Collect Call Records Without Warrants

Tuesday, January 27th, 2015

According to recent reports, the British police has been exploiting a legal loophole to conduct surveillance of mobile communications for quite some time. The loophole allows the police to gather call records, text messages, emails and voicemails without having to apply for a search warrant. The most disturbing thing about the practice is that the data collection happens without informing the target mobile users so they never come to know that their call records and personal data are being accessed by the police.

As per the surveillance provisions available under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), the police needs to get a search warrant from the Home Secretary before they are able to monitor live phone calls or text messages. However, for some strange reason, a similar type of warrant is not needed for collecting call record details or messages that were sent in the past. To access archive of phone records available with telecom companies, the police just needs to get a ‘production order’ from a circuit judge. Of course, the police needs to explain to the judge why they need access to the data but as you can imagine, convincing a judge is a lot easier than getting a search warrant from the Home Secretary.

The disclosure of the practice has alarmed civil liberty campaigners. According to a report published by The Times, privacy advocates are not happy with the fact that the police is allowed to snoop on call records without any kind of supervision or monitoring. The newspaper also contacted individual police departments and telecom companies and collected statistical data regarding the use of production orders. As per the report, West Midlands police asked for as many as 329 production orders in the last 3 years while the Northumbria, Merseyside and Thames Valley police departments confirmed obtaining 72, 25 and 16 orders during the same period. In addition, the mobile operator EE confirmed receiving around 150 production orders every month.

The sheer number of production orders issued in the last few years has aroused the suspicion of legal experts. According to them, a single police department is unlikely to have hundreds of cases where inspection of calls is required so it is highly possible that the law enforcement is exploiting the loophole to conduct unauthorized surveillance. This would be similar to the abuse of RIPA which is often used by local councils and law enforcement to access private calls and messages of citizens and journalists.

The disclosure is also set to reignite the debate about the surveillance methods used by the government and law enforcement agencies. While the current Home Secretary Theresa May does not support the abuse of the law, it remains to be seen whether she can clamp down on the practice of the use of production orders. In the post Snowden world, it would be very difficult for the police to justify each and every production order. Nevertheless, the law enforcement believes that it is not doing anything wrong by seeking stored phone records and justifies the practice by claiming that there is a significant distinction between monitoring of live calls and accessing records of communications that have taken in the past.

January 27, 2015

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