A move by the Home Office to improve oversight of public agencies using mobile phone interception technology will not extend to Scotland.
In May 2016, The Ferret published a report by the Scottish Prison Service that revealed that the agency was using controversial interception devices, known as IMSI catchers, to try to stop prisoners from using mobile phones illegally from prison.
It was the first time a public agency in the UK had admitted to using the phone interception devices.
Subsequently The Ferret also published admissions from UK communications regulator Ofcom and the main mobile phone network operators showing that they had known of the use of IMSI catchers in prisons throughout the UK.
Whilst it has long been suspected that law enforcement agencies in the UK are also covertly using similar devices, official confirmation that IMSI catchers were being used prompted calls from civil liberties groups for a privacy probe and independent scrutiny.
Dr Richard Tynan, of campaign group Liberty, noted that even though the devices were primarily used to block mobile phone use in prisons, they were also collecting detailed information about every phone that connected to the IMSI catcher. It would be nearly impossible to limit catchers so that only phones within prison walls were caught, he said.
A statement received from the Interception of Communications Commissioner (IOCCO) has now confirmed that Commissioner has been tasked by the Home Office to provide independent oversight of the use of the controversial devices in England and Wales.
However, this oversight role will not extend to devices used in Scotland, and the Scottish Government has said it has no plans to ask the IOCCO to tackle this issue in Scotland.
The IOCCO statement said: “We can confirm the Interception of Communications Commissioner has received a formal letter from the Prime Minister asking him to provide oversight of a non statutory basis of IMSI catchers in prisons within England and Wales, until the Investigatory Powers Commission has been set up.
“The Commissioner does not currently plan to produce a separate report about this subject, however it is anticipated the subject will be included within the Commissioner’s 2016 Annual Report, which is due to be released later this year.”
There must be safeguards in place to prevent collateral intrusion resulting from IMSI catchers John Finnie MSP
But John Finnie MSP, justice spokesperson for the Scottish Green Party, said independent scrutiny of the devices was important to ensure that innocent people near Scottish prisons were not subject to “collateral intrusion”.
He said: “Understandably, the prison service will want to take reasonable steps to prohibit illegal communications being made from within its estate, but there must be safeguards in place to prevent collateral intrusion resulting from IMSI catchers. I’d urge the Scottish Government to take steps to extend the IOCC oversight role to Scotland.”
The Scottish Prison Service is known to have trialled the mobile phone interception technology at two prisons, HMP Shotts in North Lanarkshire and HMP Glenochil near Alloa.
The pilot cost £1.2 million and was not wholly successful, after prisoners were said to have developed “innovative countermeasures” to evade the devices. Recently, The Register revealed that the countermeasures amounted to covering devices with tin foil.
The Westminster government is also considering new legislation which would, for the first time, allow ministers to order mobile phone companies to install IMSI catchers on their own networks in England and Wales.
The Ferret asked the Scottish Government whether it had any plans to enhance scrutiny over the use of mobile phone interception devices in Scottish prisons, or whether it would introduce similar measures to extend their use north of the border.
“We support the direction of travel of these proposals but consider further information is required before applying such provisions to Scotland,” said a Scottish Government spokesman.
“It is for the Scottish Prison Service to take all reasonable steps to prohibit illegal communications being made from within its estate, including use of mobile phone blocking technology which is already at their disposal.”
Most police forces in the UK, including Police Scotland, maintain a “neither confirm nor deny” stance on their use and ownership of mobile phone interception technologies, such as IMSI catchers. This policy has been supported by the Scottish Information Commissioner.
Nevertheless the Bristol Cable uncovered evidence from Police purchasing records that showed at least seven police forces in England and Wales have bought equipment from a company called Cellxion, which is said to manufacture IMSI catchers.
After the Bristol Cable identified this information, a number of police forces in England and Wales have apparently stopped publishing their purchasing records, despite being legally required to do so.
Ferret freedom of information requests to Police Scotland to establish whether they have also purchased equipment from Cellxion have so far received “neither confirm nor deny responses.”