We have had facile suggestions about blocking and monitoring the mobile communications services used by the rioters and looters and equally facile responses that these are unthinkable or unworkable. The exchanges mask serious issues regarding the current practical working of the legislation covering communications surveillance. Some of the issues need to be addressed as a matter of urgency before the authorisation routines collapse in disarray. Others should be taken at leisure.
The current routines are a bureaucratic nightmare that get in the way of efficient operational response while doing little or nothing to protect against genuine abuse. We need democratically accountable governance frameworks for real-time co-operation not just for the delayed transfer of data for subsequent analyis
Meanwhile co-operation between the Police and the Mobile Operators is delayed and constrained by a mix of RIPA and interpretations of Data Protection legislation which forget the exemptions for co-operation with law enforcement).
The mobile operators are, however, well aware that any voluntary co-operation has to be viewed in international context (Twitter in Iran, Vodafone in Egypt, Android in China). They have to be able to quote democratically accountable “orders to comply” lest they be “damned if they do and damned if they do not”.
The way forward is not obvious.
How much can be achieved by simply streamlining request and authorisation processes with existing legal frameworks (including the statutory instruments for RIPA etc.)?
How much can be achieved by administrative guidance, including from the Surveillance and Information Commissioners?
How much needs new legislation – and is that simply new statutory instruments or does it really require primary legislation?
There is a parallel and different set of issues concerning the operational use of mobiles to enable offenders to be arrested at the scene of scene, “paperwork” and photograph transmitted on-line. This would allow the officers to return to “duty” immediately. Once again can the changes be made by “administrative action”, or do they require legislation (primary or secondary?