The UK's snooping watchdog has been urged to investigate whether the country's coppers have a legal basis to suck up mobile phone data – or if it would constitute state hacking.
Privacy International said it had made a formal complaint about the lack of legal clarity around the police's ability to slurp data off people's phones to the Investigatory Powers Commissioner, Adrian Fulford.
Fulford's office (IPCO) is responsible for auditing and overseeing governmental spying activity in the UK, and has been asked to consider whether the police's use of data extraction tech would come under its remit.
In a report published earlier this year, Privacy International found that more than half of UK forces are already using data extraction kits, while a further 17 per cent are either trialling it, or have plans to do so.
However, there are concerns that police use it indiscriminately – some forces have reportedly downloaded the entire contents of a phone to access one picture – without gaining proper warrants.
The report also detailed the different bases on which police justify their use of the tech, and concluded that there was a lack of definitive rules at either local or national levels.
Describing the situation as "confused and potentially unlawful", Privacy International today said that it had made a formal complaint to the commissioner about the matter.
It argued that the use of the tech could constitute either the interception of communication or equipment interference – or hacking – issues that the commissioner oversees.
The letter calls on IPCO to carry out an urgent review of the use of the tech, and assess whether there is a proper legal basis and if its use is necessary and proportionate – as the law would require.
"If the use of mobile phone extraction technologies constitute either interception or hacking, then this raises a fundamental issue as to the legality of the actions by a large number of police forces over a lengthy period of time," said Privacy International solicitor Millie Graham Wood.
She added that "policing isn't meant to be a free-for-all, where they can make up their own rules as they go along", arguing for urgent clarity before it becomes even more widespread.
"We are really worried that the police's use of this highly intrusive technology is growing at an alarming rate, without any proper scrutiny, and crucially without people knowing their rights when faced with a police officer who wants to search their phone." ®