Call the Cops

by | Feb 22, 2014 | Data Security, PECR

In June 2013, the Swansea-based company CPR Global proudly announced that their nuisance-call-busting Call Blocker had received a significant accolade – the device was now endorsed by the Association of Chief Police Officers. Having been vetted by their approved agent, the Call Blocker now carries ACPO’s ‘Secured By Design’ logo. It is police approved. Every police force in the UK effectively recommends that the public purchase this fine item to protect themselves from the hydra-headed menace of cold calls, foreign scammers and stalkers.

CPR Global offer several products. One is the Call Prevention Register. The Register’s proposal is that instead of exercising your legal rights by signing up to the free, statutory Telephone Preference Service, you pay CPR so that they can give your number to a variety of unnamed foreign companies with a request – backed by no law, enforcement powers, no international legal agreements or sanctions – that they do not call you again. One can imagine the stupefied reaction of a international phone spammer after receiving a demand for no more calls from CPR Global’s high-tech offices on a side street behind Eddie Rockets in Swansea. One of the “advantages” offered by CPR over the TPS is that the TPS do not offer guarantees to stop all calls (how could they?), whereas CPR Global ‘aim’ to prevent 100% of all unwanted calls. This is a bit like me saying that I am better than my competitors because it is my ‘aim’ to look like the actor Christian Bale. I don’t achieve it, but hey, that my aim. Even on their own website, CPR Global admit that if their efforts are unsuccessful, their only recourse is a complaint on your behalf to the Information Commissioner. If you are registered with CPR Global, but not the TPS, it’s possible that an unsolicited call would be legal and the ICO would be able to do nothing.

CPR Global’s other product is the ‘Call Blocker’. It stores and blocks all dodgy numbers known to the CPR, all 200 of them. That’s right, the Call Blocker will stop “nuisance calls, harassment calls, stalkers, cold calls, silent calls, overseas call centres, spam faxes & recorded messages“, but CPR Global only seem to know 200 phone numbers (otherwise, why not programme it with more?) and the device can store a maximum of 1200, as if the entire international nuisance / spam / silent / stalker calling community is an inherently finite entity.  The Call Blocker does have useful options – the ability to immediately block the person calling, and an option to block all callers who withhold their number. However, these features are not unique. BT allows you to block withheld numbers, and the range of trueCall products do similar things with considerably less hype, plus evidence to back them up. For example, they carried out a recent study with a local trading standards body. CPR publish no evidence on their website of how effective their product is – no statistics, no research. Instead, they have assertions, endorsements and bad grammar.

If you think this little black box is the answer to international phone spammers, silent calls and stalkers, get out your credit card. That’s not the point. The point is why ACPO are giving this stuff their official seal of approval. 

As a matter of principle, I don’t think that ACPO should be recommending any products, whether it’s anti-climb paint or security fences. The organisation is exploiting a crime-fighting monopoly, as no other organisation can offer a comparable crime prevention hallmark. Anyone unwilling to pay the fee ACPO charges for approval is automatically at a disadvantage, even if their product is a good one, even if it is a better one than those who seek ACPO approval.

Last year, I made an FOI request to ACPO to ask them about their approval of the Call Blocker – I asked what evidence had been obtained from CPR Global, whether any kind of technical assessment of the Call Blocker had been carried out, whether ACPO consulted OFCOM or the ICO (the bodies with statutory responsibility for nuisance / unsolicited marketing calls in the UK), and how much CPR Global had paid for ACPO’s approval. They delayed their response in order to consider Section 43 (the exemption that prevents disclosures causing commercial prejudice). In a bid to demonstrate their transparency, ACPO told me this in a password-protected PDF which prevented me from copying and pasting from it. When they finally responded (over a month late), they claimed that much of my request was “wide-ranging and does not appear to identify the precise recorded information that you are seeking“. However, they did seek to address several of the issues I had raised informally, indulging in that most successful of FOI techniques – answering a different question than the one the punter asked. The only thing I asked ACPO that they were willing to tell me straight is that CPR paid them £650 + VAT for the approval.

I asked for an internal review, which ACPO took more than 2 months to complete, and they only responded when I chased them. The internal review admitted that I had requested recorded information. They claimed that their confusion about me asking straight questions should have been resolved by asking for clarification (which would have been “do you really just want to know this?”). The sudden disappearance of commercially sensitive considerations was accounted for by the fact that information that they had considered to be in the scope of my request turned out not to be. Five months after my initial request, ACPO finally admitted that they hadn’t consulted any of the relevant bodies who work on nuisance, silent or marketing calls.

OFCOM have statutory responsibility for much of the law on phone calls; they have contracted out operation of the TPS to a specially created offshoot of the Direct Marketing Association. The Information Commissioner is responsible for enforcing PECR, the law which governs other mischief that the Call Blocker is designed to prevent. Consulting people who know what they’re doing in this area would be good practice; consulting people who enforce the law in this area would be – to say the least – good manners. ACPO did not talk to any of them before approving the Call Blocker.

Beyond confirming the lack of contact, ACPO did not refer to OFCOM or the TPS in either response, but both responses mentioned the ICO. Despite not answering most of my questions, ACPO’s first response nevertheless commented that they were not obliged to contact the ICO, though I had asked them whether they had, not whether they had to. In the internal review, they stated that consultation had “not been considered necessary“, implying (I suspect erroneously) that they had considered consulting the ICO and then changed their minds. It is impossible to imagine any organisation with law enforcement powers straying onto police territory without consulting ACPO, the local force or both. I expect that ACPO would protest loudly if anyone did. For them to be so disrespectful to their fellow enforcers is very regrettable, but to approve a commercial product without understanding the regulatory context it works in is irresponsible.

I can’t predict what the ICO or OFCOM would have said if consulted. They may have chosen not to get involved. We’ll never know. But to find out what TPS think of the company, all you have do is look at their website, where CPR Global is listed as making ‘exaggerated claims’. In my request, I pointed the TPS’ opinion out but in their first, dismissive response, ACPO demonstrated their detective skills by telling me that the reference isn’t there, despite the fact that it is one click from the TPS front page.

ACPO’s tests to see if the company is a suitable one to receive police endorsement extended only to seeing if it actually exists (by checking with Companies House) and solvent (by doing a credit reference check). 2040 training has a company registration and can be found by Experian, but that does not mean anything. The integrity of CPR and its owners isn’t in question. This goes for anyone seeking ACPO’s approval. To receive a police endorsement, a company should be beyond reproach and ACPO won’t find that out by simply checking the company registration. A firm of burglars could set up a security company and this wouldn’t show up at Companies House.

Beyond that, ACPO received a ‘demonstration’ of the product and some CPR commercial bumpf. Based on what they told me, ACPO did not examine how the product worked, or receive any factual information about how it works. They did receive some Chinese electrical compliance certificates, so ACPO can at least assure citizens that the item will not explode.

This will not do. ACPO is not just a private company, or a standards body minding its own business. It is a publicly funded lobby group representing an elite who are already amongst the most powerful people in the country. If they are going to give commercial products a seal of approval that derives its value from ACPO’s role as public servants, as police, they should do an aggressively rigourous, transparent job, with proper information from organisations who actually know what they are talking about. I don’t think they should do this sort of thing at all, but the approach they’re taking at the moment is a scandal.