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Police to track mobile phone users

Antony Barnett, public affairs editor Sunday July 30, 2000

Police are to be given new powers to track people using satellite technology that can pick up signals emitted from mobile phones. In a move denounced as sinister by civil liberties campaigners, software being fitted into the new generation of mobiles will enable police to pinpoint the exact whereabouts of a person whenever the phone is switched on.

But privacy campaigners fear the police could use the new phones as homing devices that will allow them to carry out mass surveillance without those targeted knowing about it One campaigner likened it to putting an `electronic tag' on large swathes of the population.

The Government and the police say the powers are needed to fight certain crimes, including drug trafficking. They believe the technology will guide paramedics and firefighters to the locations of emergencies.

These unprecedented powers are part of the Regulatory of Investigatory Powers Bill which received Royal Assent on Friday. They will allow the security services to intercept private emails.

Privacy campaigners and Opposition peers urged the Government to ensure that the read-outs of physical location produced by the new mobile phones should be made available only after a warrant is obtained from a judge. But the appeals were rebuffed. The police will be able to track somebody's movements on the authority of a police superintendent.

Caspar Bowden, who runs the Foundation for Information Policy Reseach, the internet policy think-tank which brought these concerns to light, last night expressed alarm over the move.

`Anyone using the new phones will be able to be tracked with pinpoint accuracy at the click of a mouse, for very broad purposes,' he said. `It's like putting an electronic tag on most of the population.'

John Wadham, of the civil liberties group Liberty, said: `This technology is of great concern, and the legislation is simply not keeping up with it. It is frightening what the police will be able to do without having to go before a judge. Under the Act, the only authority overseeing these capabilities will come from an Interception Commissioner, who does not have to be notified pro-actively of their use, or whether tracking data is passed between government departments once acquired.

Currently, police can obtain information about where a call was made from a specific mobile, if they can satisfy telephone operators there is sufficient evidence for their suspicions. Under the RIP Act, the authorities will be able to bypass the phone companies.

The mobile phone companies believe these new location facilities in their products will be hugely popular because they will allow users to find the nearest bank or Indian takeaway, and then get precise directions to the restaurant. The companies also believe it will give callers greater security knowing that the emergency services can track them down in a crisis.

A spokeswoman for Vodafone said: `It is true that under this new Act the police will not have to get our approval to access this information any more. But we believe the new software in the phones will bring many benefits to our customers and will be warmly welcomed.'

The National Criminal Intelligence Service denied that the new technology would mean the age of mass surveillance in this country . A spokeswoman said: `We will not speculate about how police will use technology that does not yet exist. But we will still be governed by Data Protection Act and believe the RIP bill has strengthened the rights of individuals, not weakened it.§ion=102285&rand=2320212

-- Martin Thompson (, July 30, 2000


How can they say with a straight face that any of this "strengthens the rights of individuals"?


-- JackW (, July 30, 2000.

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