The Information Commissioner’s Office recently reprimanded two police forces after officers were caught with recording more than 200,000 phone conversations using an app that was originally meant for hostage negotiators, The Guardian reports.
These automatic recordings, which were made over the span of several years, included ‘highly sensitive’ conversations with various victims, witnesses, and perpetrators of suspected crimes, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) reports. The app itself, which is called ‘Another Call Recorder’ (ARC) records all incoming and outgoing calls and was originally used at a small number of police branches in Surrey and Sussex forces. But concerningly, it was found that it was downloading to the work phones of more than 1,000 staff members, recording conversations that would be considered evidential material, per the ICO.
The Watchdog opted out of issuing a punishment, despite having considered issuing a fine of up to £1 million but instead issued a reprimand in order to reduce the impact on public services.
The forces, in a joint statement, mentioned that the app was made available for use back in 2017 by a small number of specialist hostage negotiators to supporting kidnapping and crisis negotiations, with the aim of maximizing public safety. On this, they commented that “there was no means at that time of restricting use of the app, and, unintentionally, it was enabled for all staff to download without appropriate guidance in place. When enabled, the app records and stores all phone calls made in the mobile divide.”
An internal audit confirmed that the app was used on 432 phones which also held audio files. This, in conjunction with the findings which also found that 1,024 officers and staff had downloaded the app, makes the breach of privacy significant. Three users had recordings related to active criminal cases, but it was concluded that only one of these cases could have had a potential impact if the case progressed to trial.
Stephen Bonner, ICO deputy commissioner, wrote: “People have the right to expect that when they speak to a police officer, the information they disclose is handled responsibility.”
The ICO recommends that both forces take immediate action to ensure that they comply with wider data protection laws, by taking measures such as considering data protection at the start of any deployment of new apps and issuing data protection guidance to staff.