The next generation of mobile phones may prove to be the ultimate eye-witness thanks to modern technology and the RIP Act.
Under the much-criticised legislation, the police and security services will be able to request all communications data on someone they believe has committed a crime or is going to commit a crime. This includes an individual's mobile phone data.
With next generation 3G phones, however, this data will include the ability to pinpoint people anywhere in the UK within 10m. The implications are obvious and enormous. At the moment, the mobile companies retain such data for billing purposes for several months. They say that they will only hand over such information on receipt of a court order.
However, this is all due to change with the final piece of RIPA legislation, expected soon. From that point, says Anand Doobay, a solicitor with Peters & Peters law firm, the police will be able to gain access through internal authorisation i.e. the police decides what information it should have access to.
"All measures in the RIP Act are designed to ensure the police have more powers to intercept such communications," Doobay told us. This information will not be overly useful at the moment since phones can only give an accuracy of 100m (greater in places where there are fewer mobile masts, such as the countryside) but when you can achieve 10m accuracy, that could make or break a case against a defendant.
So is this Big Brother come true? "In itself, this is not harmful to civil liberties. It can happen through internal authorisation and only be open to challenge after the event - you may never know that you have been warranted." But the fact is that it if it were to come up in court (and you're innocent) it may be just as helpful as it is damning.
"If the prosecution is relying on this evidence, it will be made available to the defence," says Doobay. And if the evidence says otherwise, the prosecution has it but has chosen not to use it in court for that reason? "If it has been obtained and is not helpful to the prosecution case they will have to disclose it - depending on the relevancy of the evidence."
And the position of the accused at a same time would certainly be relevant? "There are not many occasions where that information couldn't help the defence case." Alibis, for example.
What about entrapment? "Entrapment is another area. English law does not hold entrapment as a defence, although it has been decided it can be a mitigating factor. There is a case in the House of Lords at the moment that may decide once and for all that entrapment is not a defence." Oh dear.
The question is, how influential could this evidence be. Would it override for example eye-witnesses. Could 3G phones be the saviour of innocent (and guilty) people; could it prove guilt where evidence is lacking or could it cause future miscarriages of justice?
"The important point in a court would be how reliable that communications data is. One, can you rely on that information from a mobile company and two, even if it could be relied upon, what is its accuracy?"
Either way, we are looking future tabloid stories square in the face. ®