KENT Police is under investigation over claims it is storing personal information on everyone arrested, even if no charges are brought.
The force is said to be one of six in England and Wales that uses special software to “interrogate” private mobile phones belonging to members of the public.
Details harvested can include calls and messages sent and received, internet activity, photographs and personal memos.
Data gathered from smartphones can also be used to find out where the owner was on a given date and time.
Privacy body the Information Commissioner’s Office has now confirmed it is looking into the claims, and any decision to take action against Kent Police will be taken by information commissioner Christopher Graham.
The deputy director of civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch, Emma Carr, said: “The courts have clearly said indefinitely retaining personal information is not acceptable and it appears that police forces are flagrantly disregarding the law with this technology. Where someone is not convicted of a crime it is absolutely wrong for the police to extract and then retain the contents of their phone.”
Pointing out the ICO was right to be concerned about the “frequent” use of the technology being used, she added: “It is simply unacceptable for the police to introduce a back-door surveillance scheme so they can store details of the private communications of people never convicted of a crime.”
The ICO refused to confirm which of the 44 forces in England and Wales it was looking into, but did confirm an investigation was underway.
But according to a report in The Sunday Times last weekend, they are Kent, Surrey, Bedfordshire, Devon and Cornwall, Thames Valley and British Transport Police.
An ICO spokesman said: “If police forces are examining the content on mobile phones and are wanting to use that information, this would need to comply with the Data Protection Act.
“The ICO is currently looking at this issue and will be considering whether any action is necessary to help ensure compliance with the Data Protection Act.”
A spokesman for the Home Office said: “Information about a suspect or their associates has always been crucial in the fight against crime.
“Police should only be extracting and retaining data relevant to criminal investigations or for other permitted purposes.”