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Met cops' CSI mobe-snoop tech sparks privacy fears

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Analysis The mobile device data extraction system that has just been rolled out by the Metropolitan Police is designed to provide an easier way to slurp evidence from the mobile phones of suspects brought into custody. But some argue that the move is likely to change how crimes are investigated while it raises several data retention and privacy concerns in the process.

The ACESO Kiosk data extraction system from Radio Tactics will allow officers to extract data "within minutes" from suspects' phones. No specialist knowledge is required to use the touchscreen system, which offers a data acquisition tool that offers evidentially sound reports of data held on mobile phones such as call logs, images recorded on phones and SMS message records.

The technology will be rolled out for use by dedicated officers across 16 London boroughs over coming weeks. London boroughs participating in "tackling street crime and burglary" initiatives have been picked for early deployment of the technology which, if successful, will be extended across the capital. A total of 300 officers will receive training in using the technology, which could come into its own in situations such as the riots last August, which were reportedly coordinated using BlackBerry Messenger (BBM).

The mobile data extraction procedure is billed as targeting phones that are suspected of having actually having been used in the commission of crimes. As we reported earlier today, instead of outsourcing data extraction to specialist labs, an expensive process that can lead to months of delays, police officers can use Radio Tactics' tech to obtain actionable intelligence in minutes.

"Mobile phones and other devices are increasingly being used in all levels of criminal activity," explained Stephen Kavanagh, deputy assistant commission of the Metropolitan Police Service. "When a suspect is arrested and found with a mobile phone that we suspect may have been used in crime, traditionally we submit it to our digital forensic laboratory for analysis.

"Therefore, a solution located within the boroughs that enables trained officers to examine devices and gives immediate access to the data in that handset is welcomed. Our ability to act on forensically-sound, time-critical information, from SMS to images contained on a device quickly gives us an advantage in combating crime, notably in terms of identifying people of interest quickly and progressing cases more efficiently."

Privacy concerns

However privacy campaigners are already expressing concerns that snaffling all the data from the phones of suspects may become a routine part of booking in procedures, just like the taking of fingerprints or DNA samples. These concerns were heightened when campaigners discovered that the data extracted from phones was to be kept by the authorities even should the suspect be released without charge or cleared of any wrongdoing at a trial or Magistrates' Court hearing.

"We know extracted mobile phone data will be retained but there's a question-mark over how long it will be retained for," a spokeswoman for Privacy International explained.

Previously UK police held the DNA of suspects indefinitely, as a standard procedure, even if they were acquitted, but a recent human rights law challenge resulted in this length of storage being restricted to six years. The retention of mobile phone data from suspects could be subject to a similar challenge. Privacy International is particularly concerned that the mobile phone data extraction technology will be used as a matter of routine, without any particular grounds for suspicion that a suspect's mobile phone might contain evidence key to investigating a case.

"If police have the one of these [mobile data extraction] boxes sitting around in a station there's likely to be a tendency to use it more rather than less," a spokeswoman for Privacy International said. "We're getting legal advice on how use of the technology sits with data privacy rules [covered by the UK's Data Protection Act] and regulations such as PACE [Police and Criminal Evidence Act]."

PACE regulates the procedures used by police to obtain evidence. The regulations, introduced in 1984, made the tape recording of interviews routine, but were introduced years before anyone imagined a world in which mobile phones (much less smartphones) would become ubiquitous.

Cutting through the forensics backlog

From a police perspective, 'one click' mobile data extraction technology offers huge advantages in cost and convenience. The technology is already widely used in the UK and elsewhere, notably the US.

Andy Gill, chief exec of Radio Tactics, said in a statement that other (unnamed) UK police forces have used the technology to reduce in the burden of mobile phone forensic processing on the criminal justice system. "ACESO deployments are curtailing the constraints of time and cost associated with outsourced data extraction thanks to the rapid progression and closure of cases," he said.

Yuval Ben-Moshe, a technical director at Cellebrite, a developer of mobile forensics software technology, told El Reg that many suppliers (including Cellebrite) are developing kiosk-style data extraction technology. "The technology is pretty much the same as the tools we sell to computer forensics labs," he explained. "The limitations of what can be extracted are defined by the device, and it would be difficult to generalise. In some cases law enforcement can get access to locked or password-protected content."

Ben-Moshe said while kiosk-style technology offered advantages in speed of access to data, vital for investigations, and dealing with backlogs of devices submitted for forensic analysis, there was still a role for expert labs. "An expert can be much more thorough in a search for a specific pieces of information," he said. ®

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