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EE, Vodafone and Three give police mobile call records at click of a mouse


Three of UK’s big four mobile phone networks are providing customer data to police forces automatically through Ripa

Three of the UK’s four big mobile phone networks have made customers’ call records available at the click of a mouse to police forces through automated systems, a Guardian investigation has revealed.

EE, Vodafone and Three operate automated systems that hand over customer data “like a cash machine”,as one phone company employee described it.

Eric King, deputy director of Privacy International, a transparency watchdog, said: “If companies are providing communications data to law enforcement on automatic pilot, it’s as good as giving police direct access [to individual phone bills].”

O2, by contrast, is the only major phone network requiring staff to review all police information requests, the company said.

[Note the name O2 – for when  you renew your phone contract.. put money into the hands of those who support privacy.]

Privacy advocates are also concerned that the staff within phone companies who deal with Ripa and other requests are often in effect paid by the Home Office – a fact confirmed by several networks – and so may, in turn, be less willing to challenge use of surveillance powers.

Mobile operators must by law store a year of call records of all of their customers, which police forces and other agencies can then access without a warrant using the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa).

Ripa is the interception law giving authority to much of GCHQ’s mass surveillance. The law was again under the spotlight recently after it was used to identify sources of journalists from at least two national newspapers, the Sun and the Mail on Sunday.

Documents from software providers and conversations with mobile companies staff reveal how automatic this system has become, with the “vast majority” of records demanded by police delivered through automated systems, without the involvement of any phone company staff.

The Home Office argues communications data is “a critical tool” and its use of Ripa was “necessary and proportionate”.

Despite politicians’ assurances that the UK laws requiring phone companies to keep records would not create a state database of private communications, critics argue that the practice comes very close to doing so. King warned that “widespread, automatic access of this nature” meant the UK telecoms industry “essentially already provides law enforcement with the joined-up databases they claimed they didn’t have when pushing for the ‘snooper’s charter’.”

In the automated systems used by the phone companies, police officers seeking phone records must gain permission from another officer on the same force, who then enters the details into an online form. That mirrors the US Prism programme, revealed by Edward Snowden, which in effect created a backdoor into the products of US tech corporations. In the vast majority of cases, the information is then delivered without any further human role.

One document prepared by Charter Systems, which sells the type of software used by police forces to connect with mobile phone companies, explains the automated process saves “32 minutes” of human time per application.


Take Away Message

– The 3 big operators are handing over your data like sweets.

– If you have to renew your contract dump these 3 operators and go with O2 – as a reward for supporting privacy and not handing over data

– Use a privacy shield when you carry your phone – to prevent the Telco recording your movements

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