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.
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.
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