Reports indicate that immigration officials were given permission to hack into asylum seekers and refugees for the past three years. Rape and torture victims were also included in the list.
As expected, the news sparked outrage amongst civil right groups and rape victim campaigners who claimed it was distressing to know the British government could target some of the most vulnerable people in a society like that.
Immigration officials were given power to “property interference which included interference with equipment” since 2013, confirmed the Home Office to the Observer. Critics and campaigners also fear the act could also undermine lawyer-client confidentiality in some sensitive rape and asylum cases.
Alistair CarMichael, a Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesman said, “For far too long, vague and outdated legislation has been exploited to extend the Home Office’s powers. No parliamentarian would have ever foreseen immigration officers having the powers to hack into our smartphones and computers of potentially quite vulnerable people.”
Cristal Amiss, a Black Women’s Rape Action Project person said, “These powers are an outrage. People in detention have the right to confidentiality, to speak privately to their lawyer and disclose often very sensitive information such as details of rape, torture, domestic violence and alleged abuse by officials. They have to be able to share private information without their phones being hacked.”
A Home Office document detailed the whole point of the hacking powers, claiming the aim was to ensure that immigration officers had all the necessary equipment that was sufficient for them to fight immigration crime. The office official also confirmed that there had been instances equipment interferences had been used for serious crime. He did not address whether they had been used in asylum seeking cases.
Immigration minister, James Brokenshire told Independent that, “They [immigration officers] 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.”
The powers of surveillance were enacted in an amendment to the Police Act in 1997. This is what had prompted campaigners to warn about regulatory measures outside legislation by technological authorities. There has been a new so-called “snooper charter”, which gives police powers to see through people’s web history and search through their phones.
The bill has been met with resistance from three parliamentary committees, and campaigners are urging MP’s to improve confidentiality and safety measures of immigrants before the new bill is put into law.