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Human rights group challenges police over counter-terrorism powers

Bringing into question the effectiveness of terror laws, a report by human rights group Cage highlights poor conviction rates and the discriminatory application of police powers at the border

Human rights group Cage is calling on the government to repeal powers that allow police forces to copy data from mobile devices belonging to people detained and interrogated at the UK border.

According to a report published by the group, 420,000 people have been stopped at the border under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000 since 2010, which gives the police broad powers to interrogate and detain any person at an international airport for up to nine hours.

While detained, police have the power to conduct searches, seize electronic devices and collect biometric data, such as fingerprints and DNA, from the individuals affected.

Detainees are also legally obliged to answer all questions and to supply passwords for their devices, as it is a criminal offence to refuse.

According to the report, largely compiled from the testimonies of detainees, only 81 people have been charged and 30 individuals convicted under the Schedule 7 rules.

“Out of those stopped, only 0.007% have been convicted of any crime, meaning 99.993% of people stopped are innocent of any wrongdoing,” Cage’s communications manager, Anas Mustapha, told Computer Weekly.

“Any power that the police or the state has which is that ineffective would be classed as draconian, but because it happens in the dark corners of airports, only targets particular people, and has a terrorism label stuck to it, it gets a free pass.”

The Cage report further asserts that 78% of those detained under Schedule 7 in 2016 were from ethnic minorities, before going on to allege that the religious beliefs of those detained is being suppressed.

Computer Weekly understands that the Home Office does not hold the number of Schedule 7 examinations broken down by religion, although Cage claims to have obtained a data collection form used by police during these examinations that would allow them to gather this information.

The form in question came from a disclosure made during court proceedings involving Cage’s international director Muhammed Rabbani, who was prosecuted after refusing to hand over his phone and computer passwords when police stopped him at Heathrow.

Even so, without this data Cage said it is difficult to accurately assess the impact of Schedule 7 on targeted communities, despite anecdotal accounts in the report suggesting members of the Muslim community are being unfairly targeted for detainment.

In a letter addressed to Anna Soubry, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims, Cage director Adnan Siddiqui described the detainment of individuals under Schedule 7 as “a manifestation of structural Islamophobia, which is experienced as harassment”.

In a statement to Computer Weekly, a Home Office spokesperson hit back at the report’s findings, claiming that between January 2015 and June 2018, Schedule 7 examinations assisted in 30% of cases where an individual was later charged under the Terrorism Act. 

“The use of Schedule 7 is vital to the police in their work to combat terrorism, and the authors of this report are clearly misrepresenting facts to fit their own pre-determined conclusions,” the spokesperson said.

“In his 2014 report, the former Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, Lord Anderson QC, found no evidence of the power being exercised in a racially discriminatory manner. He also said that one would expect its exercise to be ethnically ‘proportionate’ to the terrorist population that travels through UK ports.”

At the time of writing, the Home Office is in the throes of running a public consultation on a revised draft of the Schedule 7 Code of Practice, following the introduction of amendments introduced through the emergence of the Border Security Act 2019.

Cage report’s testimonials from Muslim community

The Cage report is touted as the first of its kind to provide a comprehensive and empirical analysis of the enforcement of Schedule 7 powers and the impact they are having on the Muslim community.

The document features a series of testimonies of those who have been detained under its powers at the UK border, including the account of an aid worker, who claims to have been stopped twice in three weeks. On both occasions, he was made to give up the passwords for his phone and laptop.

“I am a videographer, I make films and I have sensitive data, but they took my passwords as I had no right to refuse,” he said.

“When they gave my data back, every single Islamic nasheed [music] and book I’d had on my phone was removed. All of it. Everything Islamic – gone.”

Police responded by saying “a lot can change in a few weeks” when asked by the aid worker why he was being detained again so soon. He was later subject to a further stop by MI5, who neither confirmed nor denied whether he was being detained under Schedule 7.

In September 2017, the Intercept revealed that copies of mobile phone data were also being sent to the British eavesdropping agency Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ.

Many of the testimonies in the report highlight how those detained are often stopped on numerous occasions. For example, a self-employed businessman claims he has been stopped seven times, while another aid worker claims he is now stopped every time he travels.

“Year on year, thousands of people are stopped at UK borders and it seems to be that most of these individuals stopped are Muslim,” said Mustapha.

“They’re being stopped, questioned about their faith, their practice, which scholars they like, and their views on political issues – it’s very much disconnected from the purpose of the power which is to detain someone involved in the instigation, preparation or commission of terrorism.”

Read more about crime and data legislation

  • The Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation has called for greater clarity over police Schedule 7 powers to seize mobile phones and computers and question people without grounds for suspicion at ports and airports.
  • Police unlawfully used controversial terrorism legislation to question and detain a 37-year-old British Muslim, despite evidence on police computer databases that should have shown he had no connection with terrorism, a court heard.
  • A year-long ICO investigation has highlighted major problems with how the Metropolitan Police handles and shares the personal data of individuals on its Gangs Matrix.

Read more on IT legislation and regulation

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