Big brother fears over police tracker system
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Big brother fears over police tracker system

Scotsman | January 2, 2005

THE latest in crime-fighting communications technology can save a police officer’s life by enabling colleagues to find him through a GPS transmitter in his handset.

But police officers fear the new £2.9bn communications system could lead to Big Brother-style tactics by superior officers who will be able to track their every move.

The Airwave communications system is due to be rolled out across Scotland by the end of 2005. It is already in use in Dumfries and Galloway and in various forces across England.

It can cut hours off the time required for a missing person search by allowing family photos to be scanned and transmitted from a family home and flashed within seconds to hundreds of officers. It even has the potential to scan and check fingerprints at crime scenes.

But the technology is so advanced that police unions have had to hammer out agreements to protect officers’ privacy.

The handsets for the system combine a phone, walkie-talkie and GPS positioner with the option to add future gadgets, such as cameras, sound recorders and fingerprint recognition machines. But the GPS tracker device in the handsets prompted concerns among police unions that it might be used to allow staff to snoop on off-duty officers. The trackers allow the movement of officers to be followed on screens in police stations, meaning staff no longer need to spend time logging where their officers are.

The Scottish Police Federation has now negotiated an agreement with senior officers, limiting access to data on off-duty police. It means that station staff must get permission from a senior officer in order to check the whereabouts of colleagues unless they have an operational reason for doing so.

Norrie Flowers, the chairman of the Scottish Police Federation, said: "We wanted to make sure the system protected the privacy of officers. So, in conjunction with the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Association of Scottish Police Superintendents, we have agreed rules on using the devices to track officers while they are off duty. It will require the permission of a senior officer."

Flowers added that many officers welcomed the tracking devices in the handsets, provided they were used properly. He said: "The trackers could be a life-saver, especially if an officer has been abducted. On the whole the technology is a great thing. Every force which has used the new system says it is a positive thing and that it helps them do their job better."

But the system has not been without its problems. Critics have suggested the signals could affect officers’ health, and the large masts required for the system have provoked anger from environmental campaigners.

The operator of the system, mmO2, has insisted that studies have shown it is safe and that power levels are well within safety standards. In addition, some forces have found the system has blindspots where it cannot pick up signals. Police in Edinburgh found they had problems around the Scottish Parliament, which is a vital area for security both for MSPs and for Royals at the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

Jeff Parris, the vice-president of Airwave, said the company was working to improve coverage for officers, and insisted that the new technology was helping the police fight crime.

He said: "Take the GPS locator, for example. Not only is it important for safety, but it saves officers from having to spend time calling in with their location, and where they are headed. Instead of having to say: ‘I am outside 59 Acacia Road and heading west’, the station knows where they are."

He added: "In a missing person case, the system can also be used to take shots of pictures and send them out to officers on their handsets or in their vehicles instead of having to get a picture from the family and take it back to the station to be copied. Doing that out in the field can save a lot of time and could make a big difference in the investigation."

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911:  The Road to Tyranny