Government must face scrutiny over hacking of migrants' phones by UK border guards

The revelations raise new questions about the government’s appetite for the removal of basic rights to privacy

Monday 11 April 2016 11:41
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Border guards have the permission to hack migrants' smartphones, it has been revealed
Border guards have the permission to hack migrants' smartphones, it has been revealed

In today’s political climate in which the fear of terror is ever-present and very real, and in which a whole host of social problems are blamed on the pressure placed on public services by immigration – the news that immigration officers have, for the past three years, been hacking migrants’ smartphones will cause few political waves. The attention of British citizens is, for the most part, diverted elsewhere, by the still-smouldering row within the Conservative party and beyond over the Prime Minister’s tax affairs.

Those who did notice the statement from the Home Office yesterday, published following a story in the The Observer, are likely to be more amenable than ever before to the overreach of security powers in the efforts of security services and border guards to protect British citizens from the threat of terror.

Indeed, the language used by the Home Office seemed to suggest this is exactly the purpose and value of allowing border security to hack into and access private information from the mobile phones of migrants entering the UK, particularly those held in detention centres while awaiting a decision on their application for asylum or leave to remain.

In a statement over the specific powers provided to immigration officials, Immigration Minister James Brokenshire, said: “They may only use the power to investigate and prevent serious crime which relates to an immigration or nationality offence, and have done so since 2013.”

But rather than being used to weed out potential terrorists (for which the powers would be close to useless, given that free services such as WhatsApp now provide end-to-end encryption to protect their users), these powers have also reportedly been used to investigate communication by victims of rape and sexual assault. They are an infringement of the rights of migrants to confidentiality, to privacy in their dealings with their legal representatives, and in their freedom to protect personal and often distressing information about rape, torture, domestic violence and other abuses.

Up to 700 UK Border Agency staff are understood to be free to use these powers, which not only allow hacking into smartphones, but also the bugging of homes, cars and rooms within government detention centres.

There can be no justification for such aggressive intrusion into the privacy of vulnerable people seeking refuge in the UK. Migrants in detention, whatever their immigration status, have an implicit right to confidentiality, not least in their communications with those supporting them in their application for leave to remain. The lack of a public outcry over this abuse of security powers should not mean this breach of the right to privacy can be overlooked. A full review of the powers, how they are being used, and why their use was not previously revealed to the British public, is required from the Home Office to restore public trust in the ethics and efficacy of its border security force.

The move also raises new questions about the Government’s appetite for the removal of basic rights to privacy under the guise of public safety or the investigation of criminal activity.

Of course not all migrants landing on British shores, or detained in secure centres awhile they await a decision from the Home Office, are refugees fleeing conflict, violence, abuse or discrimination. Many are economic migrants seeking employment and economic stability, in a more prosperous nation than their own. It is right that border forces are free to investigate the facts behind claims to asylum, but those investigations should be carried out in an open and transparent manner.

The exposure of these revelations could not be better timed for the Home Office and for Home Secretary Theresa May, with recent attacks on Paris and Brussels fresh in the mind. That they find themselves facing a public uncharacteristically supine over matters of intelligence related to immigration should not provide a free pass for government over such a fundamental breach of the right to privacy on British soil.

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