Our data is our life
How giving up our privacy is the first step to a police state
In today’s modern digital world, access to your electronic devices means access to your entire life. Law-abiding individuals have a right to insist on privacy when it comes to their passcodes, especially those individuals that carry information that relates to the well being of others.
Schedule 7 does not recognise this fundamental right to privacy. Instead, without needing to be suspected of anything, an individual can be stopped under Schedule 7 and all their information confiscated.
Gareth Peirce, human rights lawyer who is representing Muhammad Rabbani, said “Schedule 7 is an enormous blunderbuss that is over-used and the consequence of its overuse is that it is abusive.”
Phone, laptop and social media data is collected. Where is this information stored? Who is it shared with? How does one remove themselves from these databases?
“In fact,” says Muhammad Rabbani, International Director at CAGE, “It actually includes information that is beyond your possession, because your mobile phone device or your laptop doesn’t just hold your notes, but details of your entire life, and the lives of other people. That’s a huge intrusion.”
“They can hold this information indefinitely. That’s just a breathtakingly broad power and it’s totally disproportionate.”
Under these powers, individuals working with vulnerable people who need assistance against governments - such as those at CAGE - are forced to risk prison to protect their duty of care to those people, and the information with which they have been entrusted.
But in an open and just society, law-abiding citizens should not be threatened to be locked up for simply keeping their password private.
Can it be ever right to throw a person into prison simply for refusing their password, while they aren't suspected of a crime?
The right to privacy is recognised in international law, however governments have passed and enacted counter-terrorism legislation that circumvents these legal provisions. This opens the way for abuse.
The stop itself is an invasion of privacy. Questions centre on you as an individual, your work, what time you finish work, where you pray, which cafes you visit, and what organisations you are involved with. There are questions about your political views, for example what you think about the Iraq War.
“What they are doing is getting into the mindset of an individual and their political beliefs,” says Rabbani. “But so what if someone has a particular view or doesn’t have a particular view? That’s just their view. You have to think about freedom of thought, and freedom of expression.”
“This is designed to collect information and intelligence on a mass scale, and there is absolutely no transparency into how this information will be interpreted and used in the future.”
Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, expressed sympathy for Rabbani’s plight: “Using general terrorism powers to compel people to hand over passwords is inappropriate.” Killock said. “Investigations should take place when there is actual suspicion, and the police should be able to justify their actions on that basis, rather than using wide-ranging powers designed for border searches.,” Killock said.
This case is only the second of its type challenging the government's right to seize passwords
“The threshold for Schedule 7 stops is so low. There doesn’t have to be suspicion associated with your stop. The wording is so vague and broad it’s not even ‘you’re suspected of’. It’s not even ‘you’re involved with’, it’s ‘you appear to be concerned with’.”
“Now “concern” - what does that mean? I could be an academic studying conflict, and I could be “concerned with terrorism” for example. I could be a journalist investigating political violence and I could be “concerned with terrorism”. I could be anybody.”
There’s no transparency to the Schedule 7 stop. There is also no way for an individual to challenge the use of this information or how it is interpreted by the authorities, who are most often looking at it in an Islamophobic way.
The implementation of such mass data collection is a costly and laborious process. Moreover, it is over 40 times more likely to target Asian people than white people, when Asian people make up 5% of the population. It is counter-productive, leaving innocent people feeling alienated, humiliated and angry.
Rabbani’s case, is only the second case where an individual has challenged the government’s right to seize their passwords. The first case involved David Miranda in 2013.
The case has broad implications for our right to privacy and our ability to protect this right of others in the face of government intimidation. It has massive repercussions for journalism and human rights work globally, and will affect the struggle for a more just society.