Police stockpiling phone data from unconvicted suspects

Sussex Police is stockpiling information harvested from the mobile phones of suspects, The Argus can reveal.

The data — including text messages, call logs, pictures and contact numbers — is regularly downloaded from mobile phones at the forces one “extraction centre” in Sussex House, Hollingbury, Brighton.

One officer — who asked to remain anonymous — said even people who are arrested and then released without charge have their mobile details kept on file.

This growing database is being likened to the police’s controversial DNA archive, which forces quietly built up over the decades.

The officer told The Argus that information from mobile phones was being retained in case the crime they were initially arrested for needed to be reinvestigated in the future. Details from mobiles can be stored by the force indefinitely.

The officer told The Argus that mobile phones are not routinely seized and are not taken speculatively, but are used if police feel they will help gain evidence in cases.

He said: “We retain data recovered from phones. If we have an interest in seizing a phone as part of an investigation then we will. But it is a judgment in each case.”

He added: “People use their phones lots and they do help in cases. If a suspect pretends they don’t know someone and then they have texts from them, well that tells you something.

“Equally phones can put someone in a location.”

Mobile phone evidence was fundamental in two recent cases. Neale James exchanged numerous text messages with his mother Brenda James, who he killed and dumped in Goodwood, near Chichester, in March 2011.

Sean Iran, his father and brother were placed at the scene of where Stefan Welch’s body was dumped and burnt in Brighton in September 2011.

A Sussex Police spokesman yesterday said: “Police already have lawful authority, under Section 19 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, to seize and examine mobile phones of persons arrested if there is reasonable cause to believe that they may contain evidence relating to the case.

“At present in Sussex mobile phones seized in this way are sent to our central mobile phone examination unit for this to be done.”

The spokesman added that retention of “any information is in accordance with the Association of Chief Police Officers’ guidance”.

Civil liberties group Big Brother Watch has condemned the database. It said: “Where someone is not convicted of a crime it is absolutely wrong for the police to hang onto the contents of their phone.”