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UK prison reform report wants hard-coded no-fly zones in drones to keep them out of jail

Ministry of Justice will hire 50 to decipher data from currently un-analysed illicit phones

The UK's Ministry of Justice has revealed it is trying to have drone-makers hard code prison locations into their products, to ensure jails become no-fly zones.

A new report on Prison Safety and Reform (PDF) says “Over the past year there has also been a sharp rise in the number of drones used to fly and drop contraband over the prison walls.”

“The use of drones as a means of smuggling items into prisons is relatively infrequent compared to throw overs or attempts by those entering prisons to hide items about their person,” the report says, “But the potential for drones to cause harm both to prisoners and staff is very real, and we are making sure we are working proactively to meet this threat.”

Hence the intention to “... trial, together with industry, the inclusion of prison coordinates in no-fly zones which have the potential to be programmed into the majority of drones on the market”.

The report offers no detail on the trial, but does explore other technology issues among them the “nearly 17,000 mobile phones and SIM card[s]” found on the inside during 2015, up from “just over 7,000 in 2013.”

Better policing of drones is one way to keep phones out of prisons. The report also mentions a plan to hire 50 new intelligence officers to, among other things, analyse data from phones seized on the inside.

“On a daily basis we collect good quality intelligence – such as email, text and phone call data stored on seized mobile phones – but we cannot make full use of that data,” the report says. “That means that opportunities are being missed and criminal activity is going unchecked and unpunished.”

It sounds like authorities have a dose of big data fever because the new intelligence unit will “develop specialist intelligence capabilities to make sure we gather and are fully exploiting the information we have. We will use the potential for large scale data analysis to guide the focus of intelligence analysis and will build our ability to securely receive and develop the most sensitive intelligence”.

Prisons will also use new powers to permanently disconnect phones and SIMs known to have been used within prisons. But the report warns that phones are hard to stop, for the following reasons:

Attempts to smuggle phones into prison are increasingly brazen and sophisticated, taking advantage of the fact that phones are becoming thinner and smaller. In some cases, the supply chain is so well established that phones are replaced easily soon after they are seized.

Prison technology procurement is also changing. The report notes that as of April 1st, 2017, individual prison governors will have more decision-making power over matters such as “specifications and controls on technical solutions, including internet and intranet design.”

“Where these fetter a governor’s ability to implement their strategy, we will seek to remove them” the report says. Which sounds like an opportunity for local IT businesses to build stuff for their local prisons. Or to work in them if your job gets killed by the cloud: another of the report's recommendations is to consider “controls on advertising and marketing spend” that other government agencies must follow, in order to make it easier to recruit prison staff. ®

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