British police have been using a covert surveillance system developed by a tech company which also provides equipment to the US secret service and authorities in around 40 other countries, a report published by The Guardian has revealed.
The technology mimics a mobile network cell tower and intercepts communications as well as the unique IDs from phones, and can even transmit a signal which will shut phones off remotely.
The transceiver is a portable device which fits inside a suitcase, it looks like a cell tower for mobile phones and can be wirelessly operated remotely by officers. It generates a signal which controls any number of mobile phones in a particular targeted area of up to 10 sq km.
Made by Datong plc in the UK, the hardware system was bought by the London Metropolitan police for £145,000 in 2008. The same company won a £750,000 order to supply tracking and location technology to the US defence sector in Feb 2010, and had $1.6 million in contracts with US government agencies up till 2009.
After gaining control the authorities can block phone calls, SMS messages, and access other phone data like unique IMSI, IMEI identity codes allowing authorities to keep a check on the movements of the phone user, without having to extract location data from the mobile phone carriers.
Besides this, the system can also effectively break down phone communications. This is very helpful during demonstrations, riots and in war zones where phones are often used as a medium to organise crowds as well as a trigger to explode devices.
Datong's website explains that its products enable law enforcement, military and security agencies to "gather early intelligence in order to identify and anticipate threat and illegal activity before it can be deployed."
Barrister Jonathan Lennon, a specialist in covert intelligence cases, said "if this technology now allows multiple tracking and intercept to take place at the same time, I would have thought that was not what parliament had in mind when it drafted Ripa [Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act]."
"It may be another case of the technology racing ahead of the legislation," he commented.