Police shelve data harvesting device roll-out to seek legal clarity

Police Scotland will not roll out controversial devices enabling speedy data harvesting from mobile phones until they have comprehensive legal authority, the Chief Constable has said.

Concerns were raised after cyber kiosks were tested in Edinburgh and Stirling without a human rights assessment.

Chief Constable Iain Livingstone said there had been a “failure to fully assess” before the devices were trialled.

Giving evidence to Holyrood’s Justice Sub-Committee on Policing, he said a planned national roll-out of 41 kiosks across the country would not take place until the legal position is clarified.

The force has already purchased the devices, which allow officers to easily access relevant data on mobile phones from witnesses and suspects.

During the trials in 2016, 375 phones and 262 sim cards were accessed across the two cities.

Mr Livingstone strongly denied that the cost of the devices coming in narrowly under the £500,000 mark – above which means it must be reported to governance body the Scottish Police Authority – was an attempt to avoid scrutiny.

Committee convener John Finnie asked him: “Will you roll out that programme if you don’t feel you have comprehensive legal authority to do it?”

The police chief replied: “No. It won’t be rolled out until I, as chief constable, am confident that we have the confidence of the community that we serve.”

John Finnie
John Finnie

Mr Livingstone said Police Scotland has just received advice on the legal position of the kiosks from the Crown Office, and he said if this identifies a “gap or ambiguity” in the law regarding the devices, work would be undertaken to rectify that.

He said the equipment is needed to deal with the “overwhelming demand” posed by mobiles, with the vast majority of cases involving at least one device.

“I acknowledge that there was a failure to fully assess and communicate what we were seeking to do,” he added.

“The work, it was paused, it was halted. I was very keen that that was done.

“There was an acknowledgement we didn’t reach out as broadly as we could.

“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 and it caused a loss of confidence.”

He said this has been “rectified” by the acknowledgement of failure, stopping the roll-out and undertaking engagement.