Privacy International and Liberty in court to uncover police phone spying technology

29 August 2019

Human rights organisations Liberty and Privacy International were in court this week fighting to force the police to reveal if they use IMSI catchers.

IMSI catchers are surveillance tools which mimic mobile phone towers, tricking phones into connecting with them and revealing personal information. They can intercept our communications and data, including calls, texts and internet use, and can even change the content of our communications or stop our communications being sent.

Police forces refuse to say whether they have purchased or use IMSI catchers, or to disclose any information they hold on the tools, despite press reports and other public documents confirming that they have bought them. The Information Commissioner has ruled that the police are allowed to “neither confirm nor deny” (NCND) whether they hold any information on the technology.

Privacy International, represented by Liberty, is challenging the Commissioner’s decision to permit NCND responses at the First-tier Tribunal this week.

Ailidh Callander, Legal Officer at Privacy International, said: "Privacy International has spent years pushing for transparency and accountability of the use of IMSI catchers by the police. IMSI catchers are highly intrusive and indiscriminate, and impact on our rights. We're especially concerned about the potential for abuse if used at protests. Despite wide reporting on the purchase and use of IMSI catchers by the police, the forces persist with their 'neither confirm nor deny' stance with the support of the ICO. We hope that the Tribunal will finally permit us to shed much-needed light on police use of this mobile phone surveillance technology and uphold the purpose of the Freedom of Information Act.”

Megan Goulding, Liberty lawyer, said: “The fact forces can use IMSI catchers against people with complete secrecy defies the most basic principles of policing in this country. It is vital that we are able properly debate, scrutinise and hold the police accountable for their actions.

“These tools can be used to attack the most fundamental elements of privacy and freedom of expression, but without the information we’re fighting for, the public will remain in the dark about if and how the police are taking away their rights.”

In 2016 Privacy International submitted freedom of information requests to eight police forces identified by media collective The Bristol Cable as having purchased IMSI catchers. Privacy International requested information held by the police concerning legislation, codes of practice and policies on use of IMSI catchers, as well as promotional material the forces had received and contracts related to their purchase and use.

The police forces refused the requests on the grounds that they could NCND whether they held the information for national security and operational policing reasons. Privacy International appealed this position to the Information Commissioner, who decided that the forces were entitled to provide NCND responses.

Represented by Liberty, Privacy International is challenging the police forces' NCND position and arguing that the public has a right to know if such intrusive surveillance technology is being used by police forces.

On behalf of Privacy International, Liberty instructs Jude Bunting and Keina Yoshida of Doughty Street Chambers as counsel.

Contact the Liberty press office on 020 7378 3656 / 07973 831 128 or pressoffice@libertyhumanrights.org.uk