Bristol NUJ and Bristol Cable agree to collaborate on police secret communications issue

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Bristol NUJ and The Bristol Cable have agreed in principle to further investigate the risks posed to journalists by surveillance technology being deployed by Avon & Somerset Police and other police forces nationally.

The technology, known as an IMSI-catcher, acts as a ‘fake cellphone tower. When deployed, mobile communications devices connect with it, enabling the police to track and listen to calls and texts. In essence it acts like an electronic ‘dragnet’ – tracking and tapping mobile communications devices across the particular area in which it is deployed.

The various problems with this method of surveillance should be immediately obvious. Instead of solely targeting a specific individual, the device scoops up all mobile communications within the deployed area which then have to be ‘sifted through’ during the search for and analysis of the target individual’s communications.

The existence of the technology, and the apparent intention of Avon & Somerset Police to deploy it, was initially discovered by The Bristol Cable, who are now investigating the matter. A discussion with Bristol NUJ subsequently led to the branch attempting to open up a dialogue with Avon & Somerset Police & Crime Commissioner (PCC) Sue Mountstevens. The branch subsequently received a response from the PCC on two occasions, the first of which resulted in a fairly lengthy discussion which unfortunately did not address the issue of protection for journalists. Because of this, the branch had to request another meeting with the PCC which was refused. Furthermore, the PCC does not now seem to be interested in discussing the issue at all with the branch.

Bristol NUJ wants the PCC and Avon & Somerset police to outline the safeguards they will use to make sure that journalists are not targeted by equipment with what appears to be very broad capabilities to intercept phone calls.  We would also like to know more generally under what circumstances the police would conduct remote surveillance of journalists. Even Conservative peers in the House of Lords have acknowledged that the public have a right to expect their communications with journalists to be confidential.

Little is known thus far about the standards and procedures governing the use of the device.

“You never know where they set the bar” said Bristol NUJ chair Paul Breeden, explaining to branch members that there may very well be concerns for journalists conducting lawful news gathering on the street. “If we don’t know what the rules are, we don’t know if they are following them. The purchase of this equipment, and worrying instances of other police forces (the Met and Cleveland, to name two) misusing their powers to examine journalists’ phone records make it very difficult for journalists to feel confident that their communications are secure. Already many journalists are looking for more secure means of communication, such as encryption, and using the ‘Dark Web’.”

Another problem is that these devices appear to be widely available online, which means that, technically, anyone could obtain one, regardless of their motive for doing so.

The branch will keep members updated on this issue as it develops…or not…so please watch this space.

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