Campaigners angry at new British police tracking system

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Thursday, May 12, 2011

Civil liberties campaigners have reacted angrily to the announcement that the largest police force in Britain has purchased a revolutionary computer system which will allow them to track everything a person does online in a three-dimensional graphic. The Metropolitan Police service, responsible for policing London, announced the purchase of Geotime, a computer program which can correlate information from satellites, mobile phones, social networking websites, IP logs and financial transactions. The software is already used by the U.S. military.

Cquote1.svg This latest tool could also be used in a wholly invasive way and could fly in the face of the role of the police to facilitate rather than impede the activities of democratic protesters. Cquote2.svg

—Sarah McSherry, lawyer

Lawyers and campaigners have questioned whether innocent individuals may be tracked by the software, likened to a computer program in the science fiction film Minority Report. Sarah McSherry, a lawyer representing a number of protesters, raised fears officers could breach data protection laws by tracking innocent protesters, endangering the democratic rights of demonstrators. "We have already seen the utilisation of a number of tactics which infringe the right to peaceful protest, privacy and freedom of expression, assembly and movement. All of these have a chilling effect on participation in peaceful protest," she said. "This latest tool could also be used in a wholly invasive way and could fly in the face of the role of the police to facilitate rather than impede the activities of democratic protesters."

Geotime correlates information from numerous sources allowing intelligence officers to view effectively every online move made by individuals, and its website says it can link one suspect to others. The computer software can reportedly create links between people and reveal relationships and private communications, disclosing "temporal patterns and behaviours." A product director at the parent company, Oculus, said the program is available to purchase commercially.

A number of academics and intelligence experts have said the program could lead to more convictions in terrorism and organised crime investigations, with one professor describing its use as "absolutely right." In contrast, an official at Privacy International called on police to explain how the software would be used. "Once millions and millions of pieces of microdata are aggregated, you end up with this very high-resolution picture of somebody, and this is effectively what they are doing here," he said. "We shouldn't be tracked and traced and have pictures built by our own government and police for the benefit of commercial gain."

Data protection in Britain has become a major issue among public debate in recent years. The most recent controversy to emerge came last week after an elderly man with no criminal record was given permission to take senior officers who systematically recorded details of his attendance at peaceful protests to the High Court. The Metropolitan Police have not yet confirmed how the computer system will be used, but they are researching numerous possibilities; a spokesperson said they were still assessing whether they would permanently use the technology but declined to confirm how much it cost.


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