The Metropolitan Police has rolled out a mobile device data extraction system to allow officers to extract data "within minutes" from suspects' phones while they are in custody.
The capability would be particularly useful if the police force were to face a similar situation to the riots last August, which were reportedly coordinated mainly via BlackBerry Messenger (BBM). At the time, there appeared to be confusion around whether or not police could access the data from rioters’ phones, although BlackBerry owner RIM promised to co-operate fully with the police.
The new system being used by the Met is Radio Tactics' ACESO data extraction system across 16 boroughs in the capital.
Ostensibly, the system has been deployed to target phones that are suspected of having actually been used in criminal activity, although data privacy campaigners may focus on potentially wider use.
The deployment is expected to substantially reduce the costs associated with traditional, outsourced methods of processing evidence, which can lead to months of delays, particularly for "low level criminal cases", said the Met.
The ACESO kiosk data extraction system comprises of an intuitive, fully-guided touchscreen desktop data acquisition tool, and will be used by dedicated officers responsible for tackling street crime and burglary.
"Mobile phones and other devices are increasingly being used in all levels of criminal activity," said Stephen Kavanagh, deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.
"When a suspect is arrested and found with a mobile phone that we suspect may have been used in crime, traditionally we submit it to our digital forensic laboratory for analysis."
Kavanagh said the new system located within the boroughs themselves will enable "trained officers to examine devices and gives immediate access to the data in that handset".
He said: "Our ability to act on forensically-sound, time-critical information, from SMS to images contained on a device quickly gives us an advantage in combating crime, notably in terms of identifying people of interest quickly and progressing cases more efficiently."
Around 300 Met officers will be trained to use the system. It is not clear at this stage as to what will happen to the extracted data off a suspect's mobile if he or she is not charged with an offence after being arrested.
Last month a member of Metropolitan Police staff pleaded guilty to the theft of stolen property, including mobile phones, Apple iPods and satellite navigation systems.
Some of the stolen electrical goods contained personal data, the Met said. It insisted however that the force has "rigorous" procedures in place to protect the security of information.
"All staff and officers are given clear instructions and training on the requirement to adhere to the Metropolitan Police security, DPA (Data Protection Act) and FOIA (Freedom of Information) policy at all times, and to ensure any breaches of security are reported," a Met spokesperson said.