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Campaigners say police should require warrants to search mobile phones

20th Jan 2017

Privacy campaigners have argued that police should require a search warrant to extract data from suspects’ mobile phones.

A report by the police and crime commissioner for North Yorkshire in 2015, recently uncovered by the Bristol Cable magazine, looked at 50 mobile phone examinations and found that six files containing information downloaded on to disks had gone missing, and that data was not being encrypted. The report warned that “possibly sensitive data may have been lost or misappropriated and this raises wider issues around the overall security of extracted data.”

Millie Graham Wood, legal officer at Privacy International, argued that “The police have lost files, undermined serious investigations and failed to safeguard people’s personal data. Across the country the police have expanded their use of mobile phone extraction on the quiet, and it is unclear what effective oversight exists.”

“The bigger issue is whether traditional search practices, where no warrant is required, should be applied to mobile phones, which can contain a massive amount of highly personal data,” she continued. “[…] They have immense storage capacity, can hold thousands of pictures, videos and apps, all of which can reveal so much about your, and potentially your contacts’, political, sexual and religious identity. They hold location data, and even deleted data as indicated by the Home Office contract.”

Under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE), officers can search, seize and retain data from a mobile phone belonging to anyone who has been arrested on suspicion of committing an offence. Any data seized can only be kept for the purpose of a criminal investigation and, if required, for use as evidence at trial, or for forensic examination or investigation in connection with an offence.

National Police Chiefs’ council lead for digital forensics, Deputy Chief Constable Nicholas Baker, stated that “Data extraction from mobile phones is legal under provisions of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, which enables officers to review information stored electronically on suspects’ devices while in custody and often leads to suspects being charged, preventing further harm and helping to safeguard victims.”