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Home Office’s favourite smartphone snooping firm sees government revenues soar

Micro Systemation's public sector earnings have already risen fourfold this year.

By Katharine Swindells

Data extraction technology company Micro Systemation (MSAB) has been awarded over £2m in UK government contracts in the past year, despite being involved in a High Court case between the Home Office and asylum seekers.

Three asylum seekers brought a case against the Home Secretary to the high court in January 2022, arguing that the Home Office unlawfully seized thousands of mobile phones from people arriving in the UK on small boats and downloaded data from those phones. In March, the High Court ruled that this secret policy violated the asylum seekers’ human rights.

Officers are able to extract the entirety of a smartphone’s data, including messages, photos and contacts, using self-service kiosks or portable mobile phone kits.

“As soon as police forces got their hands on data extraction software from the private sector (a few years ago already), they used it to extract all data from mobile phones, in what can be characterised as fishing expeditions,” says Lucie Audibert, a lawyer at Privacy International. “You could search a person and their entire home and never find as much information as you can from searching their phone.”

Or, in MSAB’s own words: “If you’ve got access to a sim card, you’ve got access to the whole of a person’s life.”

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Analysis of government contracts shows that two contracts were awarded to MSAB by the Home Office in late 2018 and early 2019 for kiosk data extraction hardware, software, licences and training, totalling just under £400,000.

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Since then, MSAB has been awarded around a dozen contracts with UK authorities, including those worth more than a quarter of a million pounds with the British Transport Police in 2021. Between January and May 2022, MSAB government deals totalled £1.76m, including a £1.62m contract with Thames Valley Police.

MSAB is just one of the major companies that provide data extraction tools to UK authorities, alongside firms such as Cellebrite and Radio Tactics.

In 2018, Privacy International raised concerns that the extraction of all data from a device, rather than just individual data pertinent to an investigation, was becoming the new normal, but without appropriate training or data protection policies being in place. The government's Information Commissioner's Office conducted research and issued guidelines to the police requiring them to limit any phone searches to what is strictly necessary for the investigation at hand. But Privacy International says this still leaves a lot of room for exploitation.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Act provides statutory powers to the police to extract information from phones of victims and witnesses of crime, if they have voluntarily provided the device and have agreed to the extraction of information. But, Audibert says, it fails to take into account the huge power imbalance between police officers and citizens, or between immigration officers and migrants, as demonstrated by the Home Office court case.

“This is a recurring concern when it comes to the use of technology and data by authorities and governments – they assume unlimited powers to acquire and use new technologies without proper assessments of their impact on human rights, leading to an unaccountable expansion of their surveillance and control powers,” she says.

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