Police Scotland has announced will not introduce devices that allow officers to access data on the public’s mobile phones until the service has the legal authority to do so.
Chief Constable Iain Livingstone told the justice sub-committee on policing that Police Scotland had failed to “fully assess” the use of the devices, known as cyber kiosks, before they were trialled.
Cyber kiosks were tested in Edinburgh and Stirling and saw officers access more than 370 mobile devices and 260 sim cards.
Both the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and the Scottish Human Rights Commission have raised concerns over the legality of using technology deemed “invasive” by privacy rights groups.
John Finnie, convener of the sub-committee, asked whether Police Scotland will roll out a programme if it did not feel it had the “comprehensive legal authority” to do so.
He told the committee that plans to introduce 41 kiosks around Scotland would be put on hold until the legality of their use was clarified.
“No. It won’t be rolled out until I, as chief constable, am confident we have the confidence of the community we serve,” Livingstone said.
Police Scotland’s use of the equipment, Livingstone suggested, was in response to “overwhelming demand” on the service and due to the majority of cases in which mobile phones were involved.
He added that Police Scotland had sought legal advice on the use of kiosks from the Crown Office and that if it found a “gap or ambiguity” in the law it would be dealt with appropriately.
“I acknowledge that there was a failure to fully assess and communicate what we were seeking to do,” Livingstone told the committee. “There was an acknowledgement we didn’t reach out as broadly as we could.”
Livingstone added: “We didn’t absolutely establish and articulate the clear legal authority and rights-based authority for the use of the equipment. We didn’t fully articulate the benefits and, in my view, the ethical priority that we needed to have to introduce the equipment.”
Livingstone said that this lack of clarity on the part of Police Scotland caused a “loss of confidence” in the use of the devices and that failings had been “rectified”.
Police Scotland was scrutinised for its spending on the cyber kiosk trial scheme. The cost of the devices stood at just under £500,000, which meant the service was below a threshold that would require it to report spending figures to the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) – Livingstone denied that this was an attempt to avoid scrutiny.
Matthew Rice, Scotland Director at the Open Rights Group, commented: “We welcome the news the rollout of cyber kiosks by Police Scotland are being halted pending further inquiries. The lack of a clear legal basis for their use has been a concern for many since the proposals were introduced.
“The intrusion on the right to privacy from seizing a digital device is much starker in comparison to seizing ‘traditional’ property, like an address book or a diary. Seizing a digital device is like seizing your address book, your photos and videos, your diary, your correspondence, even correspondence you have not sent. Our laws need to reflect that difference and the concern is they don’t.”
Rice added: “Until now, Police Scotland had maintained that the current legal framework in place is suitable for the task of dealing with new technologies. This halt suggests that this position is changing, and rightly so.
“It is important that the guidance from Crown Office, which Police Scotland say they have received, is made public so that others including committee members, civil society, and members of the public, can assess for themselves whether there is a gap in the law that needs to be addressed.”