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.