Privacy storm after police buy software that maps suspects’ digital movements
By Damien Gayle
Last updated at 12:29 PM on 12th May 2011
- Used by the U.S. military, security programme Geotime tracks suspects’ movements and communications and displays them on a 3D graphic
Police are using software to track the moves of suspects across the digital world, it has emerged, provoking fury among civil rights and privacy campaigners.
The Metropolitan Police has bought Geotime, a security programme used by the U.S. military which tracks suspects’ movements and communications and displays them on a three-dimensional graphic.
The software aggregates information gathered from social networking sites, GPS devices like the iPhone, mobile phones, financial transactions and IP network logs to build a detailed picture of an individual’s movements.
The Met, Britain’s largest police force, has confirmed that it has purchased the software and refused to rule out its use in investigating public order disturbances.
Privacy campaigners have expressed concern at the police’s adoption of the software.
‘The police’s decision to adopt technology designed for theatres of war in order to track members of the public is deeply concerning,’ he said.
‘The ability to build up such a comprehensive record of any person’s movements represents a significant threat to personal privacy.
‘The Metropolitan Police must reassure the public that this technology will be used in only the most serious of cases, not as an everyday crime-fighting tool.’
But Val Swain, of the activist group the Police Monitoring Network, said that she was not surprised that the Met had purchased Geotime.
She said the purchase was just the latest development in a strategy of so-called ‘intelligence-led policing’ that has systematically invaded privacy.
‘This is an example of a type of software that enables the police to use a great deal of data to keep track of what people are doing and where they are going,’ she said.
‘There is other software on the market that has been purchased by other forces.’
Miss Swain warned that the roll-out of such new technology was particularly worrying for those concerned about the right to protest.
She said: ‘It’s what the judge in the Andrew Wood case described as the “chilling effect” of police surveillance on public protest. This is inevitably going to add to people’s fears.’
Judges ruled that specialist surveillance units from the Metropolitan Police had breached the human rights of Andrew Wood, an arms trade campaigner, when they photographed him and stored the pictures on a police database.
‘The police’s decision to adopt technology designed for theatres of war in order to track members of the public is deeply concerning’
Miss Swain said: ‘Geotime is not just going to be used to track people’s behaviour, but also to predict people’s behaviour – and it’s a very thin line between policing public protest and preventing public protest.’
The Geotime software displays data from a variety of sources, which users can then navigate using a timeline and animated display.
Oculus, the Canadian developer behind the software, says on its website: ‘Links between entities can represent communications, relationships, transactions, message logs, etc and are visualised over time to reveal temporal patterns and behaviours.’
The software was displayed in the UK earlier this month at the defence industry Counter Terror exhibition in Olympia, West London.
The Metropolitan Police is the only UK police force to have bought the software so far, Curtis Garton, Oculus’s product management director, told the Guardian.
‘There are a few countries that we don’t sell to, but in terms of commercial sales pretty much anybody can buy,’ he said.
A spokesman for the Met told the Guardian that Geotime had been paid for and the software was being assessed for several uses.
‘We are in the process of evaluating the Geotime software to explore how it could possibly be used to assist us in understanding patterns in data relating to both space and time.
‘A decision has yet to be made as to whether we will adopt the technology [permanently].
‘We have used dummy data to look at how the software works and have explored how we could use it to examine police vehicle movements, crime patterns and telephone investigations,’ the spokesman wrote in an email.
The Ministry of Defence is also examining Geotime.