Cops should need a search warrant to slurp information from peoples' phones, Privacy International has said as it calls for a government review into police data-extraction tech.
The civil rights group has published a report into the use of such kit by forces across the UK, finding that more than half are already using it, and a further 17 per cent have trialled or plan to trial the tech.
However, Privacy International said the use of data-extraction technologies is taking place in the "absence of national guidance and paucity of local policy" with "conflicting views between police forces as to the legal basis to search, download and store personal data".
It said this lack of clear independent regulation "creates a serious risk of abuse and discriminatory practices", while the public have little knowledge of the activities.
The group is calling for an immediate review into the practice by the Home Office and College of Policing, along with independent oversight into compliance, clear cybersecurity standards for data storage, access and deletion and better information for the public about their rights.
Moreover, the group argued that gathering information contained by a phone – which can include location, medical and banking data as well as call and text records – should only happen if the force is issued with a warrant from a court.
Traditional search methods that don't require a warrant "are wholly inappropriate for such a deeply intrusive search".
The report also indicated a lack of clear local and national guidance, calling for definitive rules to be set for forces using the tech.
Privacy International sent Freedom of Information requests to 47 forces across the UK, to which all but five responded.
It found that for local level guidance, six forces said it was being developed, while others said they relied on the police's Digital Investigation and Intelligence guide – and two said they rely on the supplier's manuals.
"We are concerned that some of the processes or procedures that do exist are written by the technology manufacturers, not by the police, thus abrogating responsibility for designing policing procedures to private companies," the report stated.
A similar confusion exists at the national level: the report notes that the Lancashire force said national guidance came from the National Policing Improvement Agency. However, this agency has since been replaced by the College of Policing, which said that it doesn't provide any such guidance.
Privacy International also raised concerns about the lawful basis police rely on for extracting the evidence.
The National Police Chief's Council has said the use of self-service kiosks (SSKs) – in-house kit that cops can use to extract information – is governed by section 20 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE), which gives police the "power to require any information stored in any electronic form".
But when Privacy International asked forces what the legal basis was for extracting data, not all responses pointed to PACE. For instance, Derbyshire, Gwent, Norfolk, Suffolk and West Yorkshire Police identified no clear legal basis.
The group questioned whether it was appropriate to rely on legislation written before mobile phone technology effectively turned devices into "a pocket surveillance tool".
Among its other recommendations, Privacy International called for further assessment of whether the use of such intrusive technology should be limited to serious crimes. At the moment it is also used in low-level crimes.
It also warned against "replicating or exacerbating" existing discrimination against minority groups in the criminal justice system.
"It is disturbing that the police have such a highly draconian power, operating in secret, without any accountability to the public," said Millie Graham Wood, solicitor at Privacy International.
"Given the serious problems we still face in the UK with discriminatory policing, we need to urgently address how this new frontier of policing might be disproportionately and unfairly impacting on minority ethnic groups, political demonstrators, environmental activists and many other groups that can find themselves in the crosshairs of the police."
The calls come as government takes heat over its other policing record systems, such as the retention of images in its growing custody image database and its reluctance to put the Automatic Number Plate Recognition database on a statutory footing. ®