British cops' efforts to keep schtum about their use of IMSI grabbers to snoop on people's mobile phones is to be challenged in court.
Five UK police forces are known to have purchased the equipment – which mimics mobile phone towers to connect with devices – but groups seeking further details have hit a brick wall, as cops simply fall back on the position that they can "neither confirm nor deny" they hold any information on them.
The fact that forces used the kit was revealed back in 2016, after a Freedom of Information request by The Bristol Cable established that the acronym CCDC – present in various forces' accounts but until then unclear – stood for "Covert Communications Data Capture".
However, the forces have refused every category of follow-up FoI requests made by Privacy International, on the grounds that they could neither confirm nor deny whether they held the information.
In response, the rights group, represented by Liberty, has today filed an appeal with the First-Tier tribunal challenging the forces’ refusal to hand over the information.
Scarlet Kim, legal officer at Privacy International, said the police had relied on the "knee-jerk 'neither confirm nor deny' reaction" to requests for too long.
"This secrecy is all the more troubling given the indiscriminate manner in which IMSI catchers operate," Kim said. "These tools are particularly ripe for abuse when used at public gatherings, such as protests, where the government can easily collect data about all those attending."
She also pointed out that the refusals continued despite evidence of widespread spending on IMSI catchers leaking out over time.
For instance, purchase records have shown that in 2015 the London Metropolitan Police spent more than £1m on the kit, while Avon and Somerset Police handed over £169,575 and South Yorkshire Police paid £144,000 in a similar time period.
The challenge comes after an appeal to the Information Commissioner’s Office – which oversees FoI compliance – ended with the ICO backing the police’s position.
The ICO's decision, handed down last month, said that forces can't "neither confirm nor deny" they hold information related to legislation, codes of practice, brochures or other promotional materials related to the surveillance tools – but they can use it for other categories.
These included policies or other guidance related to the regulation of IMSI catchers, as well as contracts and other records related to the purchase of that technology.
However, Privacy International and Liberty argue this goes against the principle and purpose of the FOI Act, with Kim saying the police had "attempted to strip [the FOIA] of its very meaning".
Liberty's lawyer Megan Goulding added that it was "vital" for the public to be able to access information on the surveillance tools the police use.
"We hope the Tribunal acknowledges the threat to our rights and encourages a more diligent approach from the Information Commissioner's Office," she said. ®