When people are arrested, stopped at UK borders or their houses are raided, the police often use powers to seize phones, tablets, computers, memory cards and SIM cards, and keep them to try to extract information. This procedure amounts to a ‘digital strip search’ by police officers. The extraction procedure is carried out with software developed by companies such as the Israeli company Cellebrite, used by many police forces around the world to unlock smartphones and extract data.
British police are making use of Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act to seize devices at UK borders. 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 – in theory – 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. 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.
According to Kevin Blowe, coordinator of Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol): “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.”