UK Ministry of Justice brags about new digital forensics unit to thwart tech-savvy jailbirds

Probing contraband mobes to reduce prison crimes

Prison

The UK Ministry of Justice is setting up a digital forensics lab to probe mobile phones seized from prisoners.

The department claims that with increased security, more contraband has been snatched, and inmates are "using advanced technology to access the dark web, encrypt their messages and use social media in jail".

The lab, replete with "cutting-edge technology", aims to identify more people using phones while behind bars as well as provide improved digital evidence to make convictions more likely once phones have been seized. It will also provide intelligence on how phones are being used and their role in wider criminal activity outside prisons.

The canned statement from prisons minister Lucy Frazer said: "We know that the ways in which criminals conduct their business is advancing – with prisoners harnessing new technology and the dark web to further their operations behind bars.

"Bolstering our powers to detect and disrupt this kind of crime is a key element of our £100m investment in prison security. Alongside airport-style scanners, metal detectors and phone blockers, we will crack down on those who continue to commit crime and wreak havoc in our jails."

We asked for a clarification on what is meant by "phone blockers" – an attractive if impractical solution to the problem.

With prisons being in towns and next to roads, a wide-ranging signal blocker could raise as many issues as it solves.

But a ministry spokesman told us that all the information we needed was in the statement and it would not be providing any other details.

The government had originally ditched the phone-blocker idea in favour of detecting and identifying mobiles used within prisons and getting networks to disconnect them. This would remove the need to physically seize the handset or SIM card.

A pilot of a version of the US Stingray device, which acts as a honeypot for phones in order to grab their International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) number, fell rather flat. As The Reg exclusively revealed, prisoners in Scotland beat the system using bits of tinfoil.

The money is coming from the budget of £100m to improve prison security. An additional £2.5bn is being spent on increasing prison capacity by an extra 10,000 places and to "create modern, efficient jails that rehabilitate offenders, reduce reoffending..."

Over 20,000 phones and SIM cards are seized from British prisons every year and one in three of those are now smartphones. There are about 80,000 men and 3,000 women in UK prisons. ®

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