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Forces’ use of call recording software constituted ‘surveillance’

Forces removed app downloaded on officers' work phones after error identified

Two police forces had to delete a call recording software app from officers' work phones when they realised it was being using for “passive” surveillance and breached legislation it has emerged.

Anecdotal evidence suggests officers were using the app in order to rely on a recording of a conversation with a member of the public in the event that "a dispute as to what was discussed should arise."

Between 2016 and June 2020, both Surrey and Sussex Police permitted the installation of the call recording software application which could be downloaded to a force-issued mobile phone (or similar device) by any member of the force from a version of the Google Play Store.

The free version of the app used by Surrey and Sussex Police automatically recorded all telephone calls (inbound and outbound) made using the device’s normal telephony service.

There were 545 installations of the app by Sussex and 238 by Surrey and according to the Investigatory Powers Commissioner's Office (IPCO) the app was removed by both forces as soon as they realised it breached the legislation relating to passive data collection.

The IPC concluded that the use of the app by both forces constituted surveillance. In reaching this view, it considered the IPT cases Re A Complaint of Surveillance and AB v Hampshire Constabulary. In these cases, the IPT concluded that an audio recording of a voluntary interview was not surveillance, but that an audio and video recording of the inside of residential premises using body worn video was surveillance.

It ruled the app used by the forces was covert as it did not warn the other party that they were being recorded. This is in contrast with other apps which do inform other parties whenever a participant records the call including Skype for Business, Microsoft Teams and Zoom, which all have a feature to record video calls but activating this function will automatically warn all other parties.

The IPC highlighted the case in its recently published annual report in order to draw the attention of other forces to the dangers of passive surveillance.

It adds: “Given the widespread nature of the error, we consider it is important that special attention be drawn to it in this report. To their credit, both forces, upon discovery of the issue, promptly brought it to our attention and took immediate steps on their own volition to cease use of the app by removing it from devices.

“We wrote to all LEAs to identify if the practice went beyond Sussex and Surrey and responses confirmed that it did not. The issue stemmed from Surrey and Sussex’s decision not to restrict access to the Google Play Store on official devices to prevent the installation of the app. We are satisfied that both Surrey and Sussex have taken appropriate action to prevent the use of the app going forward and to review any recorded data with a view to its destruction, unless required evidentially.”

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