UK police use powers to seize personal data at borders

UK police are using counter-terrorism laws to seize the mobile phones of people entering the UK and download personal data

UK police are using counter-terrorism laws to seize the mobile phones of people entering the UK and download their personal data, it has emerged.

This means police can stop anyone at random at UK air, sea and rail ports to seize and retain all the data on their mobiles phones, according to the Telegraph.

This can include call history, contact lists, photos and recent contacts, but not the content of any messages sent by text or email.  

The reports say the powers are so broad that police do not even have to show reasonable suspicion for seizing a mobile phone and can retain the information for “as long as is necessary”.

The paper claims that up to 60,000 people a year are examined as they enter or return to the UK under powers contained in the Terrorism Act 2000, but said the number of data seizures is unknown.

The 2013 annual review of terrorism laws, due out this week, is expected to raise concerns over the broad powers granted by the Terrorism Act and call for proper checks and balances to prevent abuse.

Independent legal reviewer David Anderson QC said information downloaded from mobiles seized at ports has been useful in bringing terrorists to justice.

However, he said ordinary travellers need to know that their private information will not be taken without good reason, or retained by the police for any longer than is necessary.

Privacy International has raised concerns about the wide-ranging powers, saying nowhere in the UK do people have fewer rights than at the border.

“If you were on the other side of the border, the police would rightly have to apply for warrants and follow strict guidelines,” the group’s Gus Hosein told the Telegraph.

“Under law, seizing a mobile phone should be only when the phone is essential to an investigation, and even then certain rules should apply. Without these rules, everyone should be worried,” he said.  

Privacy watchdog the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is reviewing similar data seizure powers police can use within the UK, although they must have grounds for suspicion and the phone can be seized only if the owner is arrested.

Last year, it emerged that seven UK police forces had installed technology that allowed officers to download data from suspects’ phones, including London’s Metropolitan Police force.

At the time, police authorities said guidelines given to officers state that data extraction can happen only if there is sufficient suspicion that the mobile phone was used for criminal activity.

Read more on Privacy and data protection