South Yorkshire Police defend use of controversial ‘spying’ technology

Dr Alan Billings
Dr Alan Billings
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South Yorkshire Police are using controversial ‘spying’ technology capable of intercepting people’s personal information.

The force are using surveillance technology that uses a trick mobile mast which intercepts data from all phones in the vicinity.

Police and Crime Commissioner Alan Billings said he was satisfied with safeguards in place for the use of the technology – which he said is deployed to help officers investigating organised crime, murders and matters of ‘national security’.

Dr Billings said he could not ‘confirm or deny’ whether he had been responsible for approving the use of the technology as he appeared at a meeting of the South Yorkshire Police and Crime Panel.

The technology is known as an ISMI (International Mobile Subscriber Identity) Catcher. An ISMI is a unique number associated with a SIM card.

The technology works by presenting itself as a mobile phone mast with the strongest signal in a given area – forcing all mobiles within that vicinity to connect to it.

According to the Privacy International group, ‘once this connection happens, operators of IMSI catchers can collect revealing information of people in the area using phones, including the subscriber’s identity. Some IMSI Catchers can even intercept calls and texts’.

But Dr Billings said it was ‘misconceived and inaccurate’ to suggest the technology involves the interception of personal communications between individuals.

Panel member and Sheffield councillor Joe Otten asked Dr Billings: “This is a technology that affects the operation of all cell phones in a particular geographical area.

“How do the safeguards do justice to the extreme power that represents?”

Dr Billings said: “We are touching here on extremely sensitive matters and very, very serious matters.

“We are looking at the ability of the force to deal with very, very serious crime.

“This is organised crime, it is about guns, it is about drugs, it is about shootings, killings and it is about national security.

“It is a sensitive area as well as a very important area.

“In my view, because I have met the officers in charge of this and will meet them again following this, I have tried to set out what the safeguards are around that type of operation given the seriousness of it and the sensitivity of it.

“I’m quite satisfied we have all the safeguards in place. South Yorkshire Police have been commended for having the highest professional standards around this area.

“So I’m satisfied but I will be seeing the officers concerned, this whole unit, in the near future and any other concerns I will take up with them.”