Geotime software, bought by the Met, collates data from social networking sites, satnavs, mobiles and financial transactions
The Metropolitan police has bought Geotime, a security programme used by the US military, which shows an individual's movements and communications with other people on a three-dimensional graphic. It can be used to collate information gathered from social networking sites, satellite navigation equipment, mobile phones, financial transactions and IP network logs.
Police have confirmed its purchase and declined to rule out its use in investigating public order disturbances.
Campaigners and lawyers have expressed concern at how the software could be used to monitor innocent parties such as protesters in breach of data protection legislation.
Alex Hanff, the campaigns manager at Privacy International, called on the police to explain who will decide how this software will be used in future.
"Once millions and millions of pieces of microdata are aggregated, you end up with this very high-resolution picture of somebody, and this is effectively what they are doing here.
"We shouldn't be tracked and traced and have pictures built by our own government and police for the benefit of commercial gain," he said.
Sarah McSherry, a partner at Christian Khan Solicitors, which represents several protesters in cases against the Metropolitan police, said: "We have already seen the utilisation of a number of tactics which infringe the right to peaceful protest, privacy and freedom of expression, assembly and movement. All of these have a chilling effect on participation in peaceful protest. This latest tool could also be used in a wholly invasive way and could fly in the face of the role of the police to facilitate rather than impede the activities of democratic protesters."
Hugh Tomlinson QC, a specialist in privacy, said a public body such as the police must be able to justify the lawfulness of how it uses the information it collects and retains.
"Storing data because it's potentially interesting or potentially useful is not good enough. There has got to be some specific justification," he said.
According to Geotime's website, the programme displays data from a variety of sources, allowing the user to navigate the data with a timeline and animated display. The website claims it can also throw up previously unseen connections between individuals.
"Links between entities can represent communications, relationships, transactions, message logs, etc and are visualised over time to reveal temporal patterns and behaviours," it reads.
The software was displayed in Britain earlier this month at the defence industry Counter Terror exhibition in Olympia, west London. Curtis Garton, product management director for Oculus, the company that markets the programme, said the Metropolitan police was the only UK police force to have purchased the software. "[There are] a few countries that we don't sell to, but in terms of commercial sales pretty much anybody can buy," he said.
The issue of data retention and how it is used has become a major political and judicial issue. The European justice commissioner, Viviane Reding, said in March that data protection rules also applied to data retention. "Individuals must be informed about which data is collected and for what purposes," she said. "To be effective, data protection rights need to actually be enforced."
The Guardian disclosed last week that an 86-year-old man had been granted permission to take legal action against police chiefs who kept a detailed record of his political activities on a clandestine database.
John Catt, who has no criminal record, is bringing the high court action against a secretive police unit that systematically logged his presence at more than 55 peace and human rights protests over a four-year period.
Some academics have praised the software as a positive move for the police in their fight against terrorist groups and organised crime.
Professor Anthony Glees, director of the University of Buckingham's Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies, said he was aware of tracking software such as Geotime, the use of which he described as "absolutely right".
"There are these dangerous people out there and we need to stay ahead of the game in order to deal with the threat that they pose," he said. "My feeling is: if it can be done, and if its purpose is the protection of the ordinary citizen that wants to go about their lawful business ... then it's absolutely fine."
A spokesman for the Met confirmed that Geotime had been paid for, and said several possible uses for it were being assessed, including as a tool in "telephone investigations".
He declined to clarify what a telephone investigation might be or how much the software cost. Neither could he comment on whether the software might be used during investigations into public order offences in the future.
"We are in the process of evaluating the Geotime software to explore how it could possibly be used to assist us in understanding patterns in data relating to both space and time. A decision has yet to be made as to whether we will adopt the technology [permanently]. We have used dummy data to look at how the software works and have explored how we could use it to examine police vehicle movements, crime patterns and telephone investigations," he wrote in an email.
Alongside the Met, the Ministry of Defence is also examining Geotime. A spokesman said: "The MoD is assessing Geotime as part of its research programme but it is not currently being used on operations."