New research reveals how UK police perform a ‘digital strip search’ at UK borders
The author is part of Shoal Collective and is one of the authors of the report highlighted in this piece.
Police are using broad ‘counter-terrorism’ measures to seize devices on UK borders and carry out a ‘digital strip search’:
When people are arrested, stopped at UK borders or their homes are raided, the police often seize phones, tablets, computers, memory cards and SIM cards, in order to extract personal data. A number of companies supply equipment to the UK police to do this, including [Israeli company] Cellebrite, Digital Detective, ElcomSoft, Grayshift, Magnet Forensics, MSAB, OpenText, and Oxygen Forensics.
According to Shoal Collective, this police tactic is intended to creating a chilling effect, with the aim of deterring people from political organising.
Over half of the police forces in the UK have confirmed that they use data extraction technology. To give an idea of the amount of data involved, in 2017 Police Scotland revealed to media cooperative The Ferret that in:
the last three years Police Scotland have successfully obtained data from at least 35,973 phones… In the same period the police tackled 16,587 computers.
Police ‘counter-terrorism’ powers enabling a digital strip search
Police often stop people at UK borders and seize devices under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act. According to Shoal Collective:
Schedule 7 came into force as part of the UK’s Terrorism Act in 2000 and allows the police to stop people on arrival to, or departure from, the UK and question them in order to determine whether they might be involved preparing terrorist acts. Unlike other powers of police questioning, under Schedule 7 it is illegal to answer ‘No Comment’ or not to respond. People may be arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned if they refuse to give an answer. Although the questions have to be related to the investigation of terrorism, in reality people have been asked questions on a range of subjects unrelated to outlawed ‘terrorist’ organisations. For example, people have been questioned about their religious beliefs, personal life, participation in protests and political organising, among other personal matters. Under Schedule 7, the police also have the power to confiscate electronic devices and demand passwords, and have the power to arrest if passwords are not given.
‘Targeting surveillance at anyone whose politics have the imagination to look beyond borders‘
Kevin Blowe of the Network for Police Monitoring (NetPol) explained how dangerous police Schedule 7 powers are:
By far the greatest use of Schedule 7 is against Muslims with political views, especially on foreign policy or security issues. It is a fundamentally Islamophobic policing power. However, as a tool, this power is targeting surveillance at anyone whose politics have the imagination to look beyond borders: so solidarity with migrants or independence struggles, such as the Palestinians or the Kurds. This also means gatherings of campaigners from different countries who reject capitalism’s role in solutions to climate change, conflict or global poverty. This is why it is impossible to see the use of Schedule 7 as anything other than blatant political policing.
‘Creating a huge database’
According to Alastair Lyon of Birnberg Peirce solicitors:
The definition of terrorism is wide enough that huge areas of legitimate political activity can fall within it. Schedule 7 interview answers can’t generally be used in court. The process of asking questions does not appear to be the purpose of most stops: answers given in interviews themselves are probably of least interest to the police. The ‘digital strip search’ appears to be the point.
Confiscated digital devices can be detained for a maximum of seven days, unless retained thereafter for a criminal investigation. Devices give the police access to huge parts of your life and relationships. This is key: the police are potentially creating a huge database of this information.
Using Israeli technology to spy on people in the UK
One of the technologies most used by the police to extract data from seized devices is provided by Israeli company Cellebrite. The company’s technology is used to:
unlock and extract data from smartphones, enabling them to crack passwords and extract contact lists, call history, internet history, calendar entries, emails, SMS messages, documents, photos and videos, as well as see what apps were used and the data stored on them. Cellebrite’s technology also allows police forces to gain information regarding location, and can retrieve hidden files and deleted content.
The use of Cellebrite technology is in breach of the Palestinian call for states and other bodies not to purchase technology from Israeli companies, because of the Israeli states colonial policies against Palestinians.
State spying has a huge impact on lives
Shoal Collective‘s report gives the example of Josh Schoolar, an internationalist volunteer who travelled to Northeast Syria to join the Peoples’ Protection Units’ (YPG) fight against Daesh (ISIS/ISIL). Nik Matheou, an internationalist in the Kurdish Freedom movement, based in London stated:
From late 2016, and through all of 2017, Josh was in Syria, in Rojava… He went initially to do civil volunteer work… Six months after that he decided to join the International Freedom Battalion, which is a battalion of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), made up of anarchist and communist groups from Turkey and around the world. He fought with them for several months, participating in the liberation of Raqqa [from Daesh/ISIS]. After the liberation of Raqqa, he stayed for a couple of months more and then came home.
According to Shoal Collective:
The YPG is not an illegal terrorist group in the UK. In fact, a British jury in the case of Aidan James – another YPG fighter – found that it was not a crime for James to join the YPG’s fight against Daesh.
However, the British authorities routinely try to monitor and criminalise UK citizens who have fought with the YPG.
Matheou highlighted how he and Scoolar were stopped under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act in 2018:
In November 2018, we went to continental Europe. When coming back, however, we were Schedule 7 interviewed at the border in Dover. That was the beginning of the repression for Josh. He was questioned separately in a different room to us about his time in Syria… His phone was taken … and then returned to him two or three days later.
Months later, Schoolar’s house and workplace – a primary school – were raided by armed police. These raids resulted in Schoolar losing his job and his home.
Matheou described the impact of this repression on Schoolar’s life:
In terms of the effects on Josh’s life, they were profound. I really can’t believe that the raid on his school was anything other than an attempt to do what it achieved: which was to get him fired and to ruin his chance of pursuing his chosen career as a teacher. He had to radically change his outlook on what he was going to be doing in his life from that point on.
It also affected his life because at that point his passport was taken away. And it created a general problem with being able to feel confident with communication with close friends. If he was communicating with friends and then that was found out through his electronics, then potentially that could make a stronger case against them. So, he didn’t do it. It was a constant low-level panic. He lost his way of paying rent. He had to move home for several months before being able to move back to Manchester. It really defined the entire last two years of his life before he sadly passed away.
The report asserts that this type of police repression is being used as a weapon to stamp out radical voices in the UK:
State surveillance is used alongside police violence and the violence of the prison system to control dissent. The ever-encroaching surveillance state has a chilling effect on participation in social movements for change, because it enables the targeting, harassment and criminalisation of social movement organisers.
And it highlights that UK terror legislation is being deployed in a racialised way against certain communities in the UK:
The discriminatory application of the UK’s draconian terror legislation means that certain communities are treated with suspicion and criminalised. For example, Muslims, Tamil people and Kurdish people encounter even greater police surveillance by virtue of their religion or ethnicity.
We need to defend ourselves against state surveillance
Shoal Collective concludes with a call to take steps to defend ourselves against state surveillance:
It is necessary for us to fight back against the surveillance society and to resist the introduction of new technologies that will be used to control us and our communities. We need to take steps to defend ourselves against state surveillance and to stand up for those movements and communities who will bear the biggest brunt of it.
Tom Anderson is part of the Shoal Collective, a cooperative producing writing for social justice and a world beyond capitalism. Shoal Collective were involved in doing the research and writing the report mentioned in this article.
Featured image via Flickr / Dannyman
- Read the report: The UK Surveillance State: Building on Centuries of Colonial Repression.
- Check out the other reports on France and Spain, and the case studies on the Mass Surveillance website.
- Check out these tools to secure your devices from Privacy Tools and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
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