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Justice ministry pursuing surveillance rather than jamming of phones at prison

Nicosia central prison

The incident involving the alleged collusion of a senior police officer with an inmate at the central prisons currently under investigation brought to the forefront the prison department’s year long and unsuccessful efforts to get the relevant state authorities to fulfil the contract governing the prisons’ cell phone jammer software.

It has now come to light that the reason behind authorities dragging their feet regarding the matter rests on the fact that the justice ministry is pursuing a different upgrade to the existing software – one that enables the surveillance of cell phone activity within the prisons instead of enhancing jamming capabilities.

Instead of making it harder to control cell phone usage, the ministry seems to prefer keeping things as they are but introduce surveillance as a way of keeping an eye on things.

According to daily Phileleftheros, in a February meeting, Justice Minister Stefi Drakou had given verbal instructions to the prisons department to upgrade and fully utilise the existing software’s capabilities, including the automatic activation of its surveillance system and the recording of a device’s unique code (IMEI), the sim card’s identity (IMSI), the date and time of a call and its geographic coordinates.

A leaked letter, dated 28 February 2022, sent from the justice ministry to the prisons department reiterates the instructions in writing, reinforcing the idea that the ministry is bent on upgrading the software to include surveillance capabilities rather than jamming capabilities.

It instructed the prison directorate to take “immediately all appropriate actions in consultation with the department of electromechanical services for its implementation.”

Moreover, the minister had also requested that aside from the prison directorate, the police be given partial or entire access to the data collected for informational purposes.

Additionally, sources say that the minister’s decision was backed by legal opinion.

In March, the prisons’ directorate in a letter sent to the minister expressed its reservations regarding the decision’s compatibility with the constitution and also pointed to the fact that surveillance activity requires a court warrant, that enabling such capabilities may threaten the data and privacy of individuals other than the convicts – especially of those visiting, working or residing near the prisons, and also pointed out that the directorate may find itself criminally liable in the event of implementing such a decision.

“In essence, the prisons department directorate is being asked to take responsibility for the implementation of a measure that it considers illegal,” the letter said.

In her turn, commissioner for personal data protection Irene Loizidou Nicolaidou commenting on the matter said that “we are in the process of collecting information from all involved and will opine once we have a full picture.”

 

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