At Cambridge’s North Area Committee on the 20th of March 2014 Police and Crime Commissioner Graham Bright expressed his opposition to Data Protection law calling it “the biggest bugbear” and “a pain in the backside”. The commissioner’s comments were made in the context of a question on phone scammers:
Mr Bond: I was surprised to find the police actually have to operate with their hands tied behind their back. Because in tracing a scam phone call, I’d recorded the time, but BT required me to give them a consent in writing to allow them to tell the police the origin of the scam phone call, which they could actually trace, now this is crackers because by that time forty-eight hours had passed, at least, and if you’re trying to catch criminals that doesn’t seem to me to be the smartest way of going about it. Could you perhaps, or perhaps this is part of the Crime Commissioner’s role that your job involves to make it easier for them rather than more difficult which I don’t think was the intention.
Cambridgeshire Police and Crime Commissioner Graham Bright: And what’s more a lot of people have their hands tied behind their back because of data-protection. Data protection is a sometimes it’s very good it can actually protect people, but at the same time it is a pain in the a…, backside, if it’s happened, now I’ve made a note of that, I wouldn’t mind, you letting me know specifically about that so we can track it back and look at it and we can take it up with BT and if necessary take the thing through in terms of pointing out the data protection is allowing people to carry out these scams, and of course these scams are multiplying, there’s a huge number of people doing scam phone calls and of course they’re doing scam emails as well. Cybercrime is just you know spreading like mad, and we do, I agree with you, we do need to be able to track that back and if you could let me have the details I can track it back and we’ll use that to see if we can
[close the box? / order some clocks? / honesty box?]oil some cogs.
Mr Bond: I will. Because I think you will find your officer was so frustrated by the fact that if we’d been able to actually get the trace done within five minutes of the call because your 101 system could have been able to respond, then the system would allow an immediate trace then the system might have actually caught them, red handed.
Cambridgeshire Police and Crime Commissioner Graham Bright: I promise you that we’ll look at that. If you drop me a line I will talk to the chief constable and some of the senior officers and see how it might be done. My colleague here has made a note of that. How we handle it, how we improve, because it does seem rather stupid to me, but then there’s lots of things that are stupid out there and we try to wrestle with them, and I say that the biggest bugbear is this data protection and lets see what we can do.
I am concerned by our Police and Crime Commissioner’s attitude to the law which protects our privacy.
I think it is right that a company asks for a clear authorisation from a customer before voluntarily releasing what they consider a customer’s personal information to the police. This could be a letter or an email. In the case of a phone company I’d have thought if you’d called up, passed their security checks to confirm you’re the account holder, and give permission that ought be sufficient. I’d expect the large communications companies to have clear policies available to their customers and to follow them.
I would hope the phone companies would co-operate with police investigations and provide information rapidly when requested, and when a customer has given permission to provide information.
The police can also obtain court orders to require the release of information held by phone companies, or anyone else, if those it relate to give their permission or not.
I am personally surprised our local police take an interest in a scam phone call. There have been times when I’ve had multiple scam phone calls every day; currently the rate is a little lower but I get many scam emails. Unless the details make it particularly worrying, or it appears there’s a good chance of making a case against one of those responsible, I’m surprised an individual communication would be considered by anyone worth bothering the police with.
Quite what the police do, and do not, take an interest in often appears arbitrary, and appears to vary from place to place and officer to officer. While Mr Bond found an officer keen to look into a scammer on the phone I’d be surprised if that was the norm.
Clearly some phone scammers are serious, despicable, criminals; particularly those conning vulnerable elderly people out of their money for example. Where offences are reported they need to be effectively investigated and those responsible ought be dealt with robustly and publicly in court to deter others.
Online Crime Reporting
I would like to see the police running an online reporting system enabling people to make the police aware of things like attempted scams (and other crimes) which are generally, in my view, below the threshold to warrant taking the time of an officer answering calls to 101. Run well such as system could organise the information submitted to make it easy for the police to review it, identify trends and problem areas, and take action. Family members, councillors, PCSOs or others could help those unable to use the online system to enter information from their own notes/diaries. I think such a system might help the police appreciate the levels of other crimes which need to be tackled, but individual incidences of which don’t reach the threshold for a call, such as careless driving, driving while using a mobile phone, obstructive parking, dangerous dogs, to name but a few which I personally observe on a regular basis but don’t feel there’s currently an appropriate route to take action on. I do from time to time raise such issues at local police priority setting meetings, and directly with relevant councillors.