News has emerged that British immigration forces have been forcibly hacking into the phones of arriving migrants from war-torn countries like Libya and Syria. Despite a widespread belief that Immigration was due to gain the power to search devices with the coming Investigatory Powers Bill, research has now revealed that Immigration has in fact been at it since 2013.
It was at that point – the Home Office has confirmed – that Immigration officials were given new powers to conduct ‘property interference, including interference with equipment.’ This (we now know) allows agents to hack into smartphones, tablets and computers. While even enabling them to plant listening devices in homes, vehicles or housing centres to gain intelligence.
Most disturbing to civil rights campaigners is the revelation that this has been standard practice even when concerning potential or suspected rape and torture victims. Demonstrating to human rights activists that the UK government has been willing to discriminate against even the most vulnerable members of British society. Furthermore; leaving a bitter taste in the mouth concerning the sweeping powers that the government intends to make uniform in the coming months with the Snoopers Charter.
One major concern is that the ongoing snooping could work as a conflict of interest for asylum seekers that get caught up in litigation. Undermining, as it does, the sensitive client-lawyer confidentiality that is supposed to exist during cases.
Cristal Amiss, a spokeswoman for Black Women’s Rape Action Project, has gone on the record to severely criticise the government’s actions,
‘These powers are an outrage. People in detention have the right to confidentiality, to speak privately to their lawyer and disclose often very sensitive information such as details of rape, torture, domestic violence and alleged abuse by officials. They have to be able to share private information without their phones being hacked.’
The legal alterations (made in 2013) that have made this abusive snooping permissible, were appended to an existing law knows as the Police Act of 1997. Those amendments are now being called into question. With many campaigners claiming that the government has unfairly twisted old legislation for new tech-based purposes. Purposes for which it was never truly intended.
Liberal Democrat, Alistair Carmichael, is one of those critics and was quick to point out the flaws in the Conservative government’s practices,
‘For far too long, vague and outdated legislation has been exploited to extend the Home Office’s powers. No parliamentarian would have ever foreseen immigration officers having the powers to hack into our smartphones and computers of potentially quite vulnerable people.’
Immigration’s Snooping is Discrimination
Silky Carlo a spokesperson for the Amnesty group Liberty also feels that the government is stretching its powers way too far,
‘The entirely new power of routine communication interception at removal centres is a blatantly discriminatory move.’
Unfortunately, this type of interference has all too quickly become the norm in the UK. With it now lawfully agreed on (even before the official introduction of the draft Investigatory Powers Bill) that any snooping conducted by GCHQ using computer network exploitation (CNE) is legal. This was decided by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal during a case that took place in 2015, and was the first time that British intelligence went public about levels of snooping that whistleblower Snowden has previously referred to as ‘worse than the US.’
An official document from the Home Office brings to light the level of snooping that migrants have been subjected to since the amendments to the 1997 Police Act were made. That document, says that ‘immigration officers can deploy a full range of investigative techniques to deal effectively with all immigration crime.’ The paper also acknowledges that around 700 Immigration Officials have been enjoying those powers, and have been actively hacking into the devices of immigrants arriving in the UK. Quite the hacking free for all.
Sadly those powers are only set to get worse. On the 15th of March, the government forged ahead with its plans to rush through the Snoopers Charter. That legislation will increase the UK’s surveillance powers to include local, transport, and military police forces. As well as the Tax Office. All of whom will be able to analyze a year’s worth of – any British citizen’s – entire web browsing history, without due cause and without a warrant.
The Home Office, of course, claims that the 700 empowered UK border agency employees only use the added 2013 surveillance capabilities for ‘strengthening safeguards and oversight.’ Further commenting that,
‘They may only use the power to investigate and prevent serious crime which relates to an immigration or nationality offence and have done so’.
The problem is that with so little oversight – and no need for warrants – it is hard to know what is actually going on behind the scenes. With it left entirely to trust, it is almost impossible to detect abuses. Misconduct that could be ocurring at the hands of a rogue, corrupt, or even (perhaps) mentally unstable officer: whom has been trusted with these far-reaching powers.
This, after all, is why it has always traditionally been necessary to implement certain levels of oversight when it comes to intruding into people’s lives. Oversight that the government has now mistakenly decided it is fine to do away with.