Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Please, get me out of here.

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) is a piece of legislation that governs Police (and other agencies) powers to interrogate technology such as computers and mobiles for the purpose of criminal investigations, to prevent serious public disorder and to protect security interests, amongst a few other things. It was brought in for a number of reasons, mainly to legislate in anticipation of the increased use and requirement to analyse technology during investigations. I believe it was also to put some serious stops in place to prevent us nasty untrustworthy Policemen from stitching innocent people up (as we clearly always do) and just doing what we want with suspects phones, computers, email accounts etc without someone way high up the chain of command offering their head to the block if it all goes wrong. Cynical I know, but it was the Labour party who brought it in, and they're not big fans of the Police.

As a front line Police officer my use of RIPA is not as regular as CID or special branch for example, but when I do have to use it, it would cover things like mobile phone traces, interrogating mobiles for intelligence on suspects movements, putting together covert recce's on premises before executing warrants or interrogating seized computers during an operation where time is critical.

I dealt with a job recently that highlighted to me the serious problems of having such high level authorisations needed for something so apparently simple as a cellsite trace. Cellsite is what we call the triangulation of a mobile phone using information from the service providers cell masts. How it works is we contact our liaison department at each of the service providers, they then check their records to see which masts have been hit by the phone when it connects at regular intervals or when it was turned off, and depending on signal strength from various masts they can triangulate and give rough area of where the handset is.

To give an idea of how rough, for the job I was on, we were given a central location but a search area of 400 meters from that point. You can imagine how difficult - and almost pointless - an area that is to search in the middle of the most densely populated city in Europe. Different companies can give varying results, I have heard of differences in search areas from 20 meters to half a mile from the central location. Because the cellsite data comes directly from the service provider the Police have no control over how long it takes them to collect the data, triangulate and get back to us. They also charge for the service, I was told on our job that the Met would be charged £5k for it.

Cellsite data can be forensically examined in extreme detail as happened in the Soham murder investigation. By analysing the exact strength of the signal from relevant masts, the investigators were able to prove that the mobile belonging to one of the girls was located at the front door of Ian Huntley's house before being taken inside and switched off a couple of feet inside the hall.

For investigative purposes a cellsite request has to be authorised by an officer of the rank of Superintendent or above and that authorisation can only be granted if the officer believes that there is serious risk of harm or a serious threat to life. When you're running an historical investigation where you have a murder (for example) there is no problem in getting the authorisations as the need for the data is obvious and unquestionable. For a fast time operation, such as a vulnerable missing person, a suspected abduction or a silent 999 call, the opinion of the level of threat is extremely subjective, and just because one person thinks the threat justifies cellsite, it certainly doesn't mean everyone in the command chain agrees.

The decision has to be based on the information immediately available, including history of the subject, informants, suspects and circumstances of the call/investigation. I won't go into too much detail but a job I was on recently involved requesting cellsite as part of the investigation into the apparent disappearance of a female. I'd got in early for a Sunday day duty as usual along with a mate, and to do the night duty a favour we took a vehicle out to clear up some of their outstanding calls. After we'd resulted the half dozen or so calls and were on the way back into the nick for parade, we received a request to attend a street to meet with an informant reporting her friend missing.

We got there just before 7am, only a couple of minutes after the control room had got the initial call. The informant who I'll call Rebecca worked in a club and had seen her friend Jessica in there with a guy who Rebecca had never met. Jessica told her that he was a friend she'd recently met, and a couple of hours later as Jessica and the guy left, she told Rebecca they were going to go to another club that stayed open later. Not long after Rebecca finished work at about 0530, she had received a text from Jessica that read "Please, get me out of here" Rebecca sent a text back and a couple of minutes later she received a phone call from Jessica who sounded drunk and appeared to be crying. Jessica told Rebecca that she didn't know where she was, she was drunk and wanted to leave and the guy wasn't letting her go.

Rebecca then spoke to the male who gave her an address of where he was but told her not to bother coming round as he loved Jessica and she was safe. He then hung up, and switched the phone off. Rebecca tried several times to call Jessica back with no joy, after a short time she called a couple of friends and they got in a taxi to the address the guy had given, and when they found it was a Doctors clinic, they called the Police.

We did all the checks we could at the scene, short of putting the clinic's door in. Rebecca, Jessica and her friends were all no trace on intelligence checks or the Police national computer suggesting that none of them had ever come to Police notice before. Rebecca seemed completely honest and genuine, the text she received was exactly as she had said and everything else checked out. On the information that we had, both my colleague and I were seriously concerned for Jessica's safety, to the point of thinking we could be looking at another Martine Vik Magnussen, given the similarities in events leading to her disappearance. The only possible lead we had at that time was to get a cellsite done, especially it was still relatively recent to the first message from Jessica.

The duty officer disagreed and refused to put the request forward to the duty Superintendent, based on that information, as he decided there was not an established threat to life or risk of serious harm. We debriefed Rebecca and her friends to try and get as much information as possible about Jessica's lifestyle and habits, we went round to her address and after gaining entry to her room we interrogated her laptop for any possible leads or clues to what she was like.

By the time we left to go back to the nick we had a possible suspect who was ident to the male Rebecca had seen Jessica with, an address he lived at and enough grounds to arrest him and search his flat and vehicles. We got back and the investigation was now in full flow, a Detective Chief Inspector was in charge as this was now classed as a high risk missing person, and his first call was to put the cellsite through. As far as he was concerned the evidence suggested reasons to suspect serious harm was likely, even before we searched Jessica's flat and proved she wasn't there asleep and recovering from a hangover. By the time cellsite came back, it was some seven hours after we first attended. The duty Superintendent by the way, didn't bat an eyelid when they authorised the cellsite request.

Jessica was later located, she said that there was some 'miscommunication' between her and Rebecca and she denied saying what she had in the phone call, despite the text message she'd sent. The address that Rebecca was given was remarkably similar to the one Jessica had actually gone to, we'd even checked that street as it sounded similar but we found no building number that matched. It turned out to be a flat number. We'd confirmed that she was less than 100 meters away from the central point that the cellsite data gave us, but realistically there was no way we could have searched every possible place, it would have taken literally hundreds - if not thousands - of officers to search within any useful time frame.

The information that we had suggested to us that Jessica was in potential danger and merited further aggressive investigation. Thankfully it turned out that she was in no danger, but over a hundred Police hours were taken up (wasted?) determining that, as well as the cost of the cellsite. As much as we would love to be able to, it would be virtually impossible to put that much manpower into every missing person investigation. This one job was classed as high risk and tied up nearly every person on my shift, as well as the duty CID team for the majority of the day.

As for silent 999 calls, or even calls with seemingly innocuous conversations being heard in the background as happened in the very unfortunate case with Hannah Foster, we simply do not have the resources to deal with every single one - there are around 5.5million silent or believed unintentional 999 calls in the UK every year, with less than 1% of them later being confirmed as genuine.



Blue Eyes said...

One of my colleague's daughter was being harassed recently and she dialled 999 in her handbag. The operator heard what was going on and officers were on scene very quickly. I don't know if they used cell site or whether the daughter mentioned the location but I had assumed cell site. But it sounds as if it isn't quick enough from what you say.

I have to admit I assumed that the 999 call centres had the caller's location up on screen automatically!

Metcountymounty said...

When a call does come through and there are 'sounds of disturbance' heard or an obvious request for help is made then they can do cellsite almost immediately and get the eastings and northings (if the phone is still live) to grid ref the handset as it is a justified use, the problem is when it's not obvious, or its part of an investigation with someone elses phone as I had.

Blue Eyes said...

That explains it.

Keep up the good work Mr MCM!

Area Trace No Search said...

I've had to call 999 a couple of times on duty when the radios have failed - the most important thing, before giving ANY other information has to be the location.

Drives the IR operators mad, mind.

Metcountymounty said...

asnt - agreed, as I'm sure you find, there is nothing more annoying when you're trying to find someone who's called 999 and you're given lots of info that you don't really need, except where they actually are. I've lost count of the times I've asked the cad room to send a message to the operator to drop the call so the control room can call the informant and get the information we actually need instead of whats on the operators script sheet.

Anonymous said...

You cannot tell the position of a mobile phone precisely enough to locate it at one particular front door from a comparative analysis of it's received signal strength at several masts.

The attitude and orientation of the internal antenna, reflections from buildings, differential atmospheric attenuation , the fact that not each receiving mast will have the same calibrated (or normalised) relative senitivity to each other....

.. why not leave the brainy stuff to others, eh? You know you're really no good at it - didn't you read your own writing? A few hundred metres you said. Remember? - yuoure not giving evidence in court now...your contradictions self-inconsistencies and demonstrable ignorance will be noted in this particular public forum.

You Twat.

You said it yourself a locus of a few hundred metres across its longest dimension is all you'll get.

You double Twat.


Publish if youn dare...

... sorry, I forgot: you're a cowardly as well as stupid.

You Twat

Metcountymounty said...

Hi cuddles, thanks for the 'constructive' criticism, and here's why you're an over opinionated and pretentious dick.

"Jessica Chapman's mobile phone provided "highly significant" evidence implicating Ian Huntley in her murder, the Old Bailey was told.

Analysis by a mobile phone forensic expert strongly suggested that Jessica's phone was switched off outside Huntley's house at 5 College Close, Soham. Richard Latham, QC, prosecuting, said Jessica was carrying her Nokia phone when she left home with her friend Holly Wells on the day they disappeared.

The phone was connected to the Vodafone pay-as-you-go network. Peter Bristowe, an expert in mobile technology, carried out what is known as cell site analysis of the activity of Jessica's phone.

His inquiry showed that Jessica's phone had been "explicitly detached from the network" at 6.46pm - 31 minutes after she and Holly left the Wells house.

Crucially the "farewell" signal emitted by the phone was received by a phone beacon at Burwell, a few miles south of Soham.

This was an important discovery because there are only a small number of locations in Soham where the Burwell beacon provides an adequate signal.

Most mobile calls in the town are routed through a phone mast at Soham football pitch.

Mr Latham displayed on screen a map marked with four red circles that he described as the "hotspots" where the signal from Burwell was strongest.

He said Mr Bristowe had walked around Soham and discovered only one hotspot in common with the route known to have been taken by the girls.

Mr Latham said: "Within the suggested area of the girls' movements, the only location where - according to the expert - Jessica's phone is likely to have been deregistered from the Vodafone network through the Burwell beacon is in the area by Soham Village College, right outside number 5."

What I said was "Cellsite data can be forensically examined in extreme detail as happened in the Soham murder investigation. By analysing the exact strength of the signal from relevant masts, the investigators were able to prove that the mobile belonging to one of the girls was located at the front door of Ian Huntley's house before being taken inside and switched off a couple of feet inside the hall"

This was determined by the forensic analysis of the cellsite data as I said. What we get initially is not a forensic analysis, it's a rough area around a central point which is why it is not as accurate. Which is also what I said.

Not my first day at school pal.

lightsandsirens said...

Here in Australia telstra customers can use whereis everyone. It is 50 cents at the most! With assisted gps phones it is accurate to 50 meters! I'd like to think that if there is an accurate, low cost, instant service available to the public then something similar would be offered to the police force!

Anonymous said...

Increasingly, modern mobile phones have GPS technology built in. (Many already do now.)

The traces will become more accurate. And if your department or area is advanced, will already be able to take advantage of this.

Metcountymounty said...

lightsandsirens - There are quite a few websites that we can get access to that do the same thing in the UK, the problem is the legal ramifications of using them to trace someone, it if is later used in court then the validity of any evidence gathered is brought into question and can be ruled inadmissible. There are lots of ways that we could save money in the Police like using a website charging a quid for a service instead of a company charging £5k but with the legal requirements set down in legislation by RIPA or PACE, we can't use them. In a situation like the job I described in the post, where we were lead to believe that someone was in serious danger and they actually weren't and we used a freely available website instead of following procedure then they could claim that their right to privacy was breached and sue the crap out of us if everything wasn't completely by the book! As much as it would make things easier for us, the Job and politicians would not allow us to do it.

Anon 0903 - As I said in the post, the data that we get to trace the cellsite comes directly from the service provider, we don't have a department that can do the trace as and when we want as we don't have access to the data, it's a request that goes straight through to them. The technology is more than likely there, but there is no legislation in place to make the companies use it as it incurs a cost that the companies would have to pay for and they are unwilling to do that. It's a similar situation with blocking stolen mobiles permanently, it is possible but the tech costs money and as long as they companies aren't hit financially and they have no legal obligation to comply then they simply won't do it to just help the Police out and reduce crime.

Anonymous said...

The Human Rights Act specifies that in order for the police to infringe certain rights - eg privacy then they must have legal authority (as well as be necessary/proportionate etc).
The main reason for creating RIPA was to enable the surveillance practices that were previously in place to be covered by legislation and hence comply with the Human Rights Act.

(as far as I remember without the books infront of me ;-)

TheBinarySurfer said...

A good post MCM and one that outlines the difficulties of Cellsite Et Al.

To the troll:You do realise that generally when you contradict someone the idea is to make them look foolish, not yourself? Glad we cleared that one up now please try and write a comment that doesn't make you look like an ignorant, spiteful, banal individual :)

Rogue Gunner said...

Thanks you for your support of our Armed Forces and I also understand how rowdy and boisterous the Forces lads can be when out letting their hair down when coming back from operations, but so can any group of predominantly males but now it seems females can be as bad. I personally would not want to live next to an Amy barracks or a football ground for that matter. I welcome your explanation of the officers arresting techniques, but I have been in situations were I have been getting verbal abuse in Northern Ireland , I’m sure far worse than the officers in this incident? commanders on the ground felt that arresting a solitary youth would only inflame the situation. I’m not saying that the Police should not arrest anyone for being verbally abusive, but I have lost count of the programmes on TV that highlight the Policeman’s patience of a Saint in dealing with drunks (When they know there being filmed),as you know alcohol is the main reason for this type of behaviour. I believe on this occasion if the officers could have engaged in a conversation with the soldier they may have calmed the situation down? Not that it should have mattered as all of us should be treated equal regardless of our Religious beliefs or skin colour or employment when it comes to breaking the law, but as you may agree if they have discovered he was military I’m sure they could have discussed in a more controlled manner what was his problem? Do you honestly think that they (Police) would have reacted like this if the man had been from an ethnic minority? I personally don’t think so? I would just like to add that I fully supported the Police in the handling of John Charles de Menezes incident, where I honestly believe they believed he was a suicide bomber and under the circumstances at the time who can blame them. I am totally apposed to the Police arresting an MP for a matter relating to Immigration, if this had been about National defence, I would once again have supported this action. As for the Para I’m not surprised if you didn’t fancy running after him as they are fit lads the Para’s and as for the Met Police Officer and the e-mails, I know who he is (Ex Soldier) and I know he also was typing under the influence,

Happy Christmas.

Metcountymounty said...

Gunner - There are still a few occasions where not arresting is the best option as it will cause considerably more grief than it solves, such as at football matches. Most of the time however, especially on a normal night in town, arresting someone in front of large groups of people and having a virtually zero tolerance can and does prevent hassle later on. If people see that they can stand there and swear and abuse officers then more follow and it gets out of hand for everyone, if they see that the officers won't take any grief at all then it gives people pause for thought, especially if you have enough officers to take in a good half dozen or so in a short space of time.

On the Aspinall cctv video it starts when he approaches the officers, we have no idea what happened before, as I said without audio we'll never know the full context of the conversation. The officers start to walk over to him, not break out into a sprint. We'll never know if they were going over to talk to him to give him a 'flea in the ear' or try and calm him down, he sprinted off before they got the chance to get to him to give him a last warning or speak to him.

In my experience, race or creed wouldn't have made a difference. I've seen and used considerably more force than the officers used arresting people from every background, and I've had countless people accuse me and all of my colleagues of racism for god knows how many arrests, yet never had a complaint substantiated or found against me. I'm not sure if you're familiar with the incident with Toni Cromer last year? An extremely drunk 'black' female was arrested by an officer who used an equal level of force as the officers used in the Aspinall vid - he was on his own fighting on a stairwell with someone trying to scratch and bite him, and tried to grab a handful of scrotum. He had to hit her several times (hammer strikes not punches) to get her in cuffs and the CCTV looked awful to the public. He was accused of racism and later completely exonerated, after being vilified by the media.

I agree with you on De Menezes, a complete tragedy but the officers had an honest held belief that he was a threat and they were told they would only be called in to strike a confirmed target and that's how they approached him after they were sent in. Personally, I think the inquest jury should have had all options to consider, they could have appealed the decision if the jury found he was unlawfully killed (and the family have already lodged an appeal) but by restricting the options it now looks like a whitewash. The Harry Stanley debacle started in the same way with the inquest options being restricted, and that lasted for nearly seven years going through inquests and appeals etc.

I'm still undecided about the MP arrest, in the Met Police Authority briefing today, the acting commissioner stated that the allegation was that documents of national security were being leaked, in addition to others that were used relating to failings at the home office. IF that is the case then the arrest was justified but I've no doubt there will be a ministerial review once it's all over so I'll reserve judgement on it until then!

And the Para buying heroin... he didn't get the chance to run as I was blocking the alley after following him and the dealer down there. The following five minutes when he tried to run were amongst the least favourite of my career thus far, but he eventually got nicked, and thankfully a van crew wasn't too far away. I'm sure you're very familiar with milling.... had there have been cctv I would be very interested to see what the public would have thought of it. We found out he was a para after we strip searched him and found his MOD90 in his pants!!

Anonymous said...

Sorry, MCM, very much respect the post (and it is a very honest point of view...), read regularly, but as we use CS'ing for other things, could you please remove refs to how accurate it is?

Metcountymounty said...

anon above, I'm well aware that cellsite is used extensively by other departments dealing with level 2 and 3 crime and CTC, but the information I've put in the post is already very much in the public domain, in particular about the specifics for forensic analysis. A quick search on recent high profile jobs where cellsite was a key factor in the prosecution (Soham, Chandlers Ford robbery, Madrid, 7/7 and 21/7 etc) will bring up plenty of news and professional links with considerably more info than I've put down.

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Blue Eyes said...

Everything OK Mr MCM? Long time no post!

Metcountymounty said...

Cst KO - nope. Gadgets, coppersblog, NJ then Bloggsy. In my opinion.

Blue eyes - still here but lots of work and a fecked computer didn't help!

some bloke said...

I have no problem with the Police using RIPA legislation in any way they see fit to detect real crime and find vulnerable people.
What I object to is johnnie-come-nobodys in local councils using it to enforce their social agandas.