10:42, May 14 275 0 theguardian.com

2017-05-14 10:42:03
Campaign group to challenge UK over surrender of passwords at border control

The human rights group Cage is preparing to mount a legal challenge to UK anti-terrorism legislation over a refusal to hand over mobile and laptop passwords to border control officials at air terminals, ports and international rail stations.

Cage, which campaigns on issues such as torture, discrimination and wrongful imprisonment, is planning to fight the issue as a surveillance v privacy test case.

The move comes after its international director, Muhammad Rabbani, a UK citizen, was arrested at Heathrow airport in November for refusing to hand over passwords. Rabbani, 35, has been detained at least 20 times over the past decade when entering the UK, under schedule 7 of terrorism legislation that provides broad search powers, but this was the first time he had been arrested.

He said he had cooperated as usual and handed over his laptop and mobile phone. On previous occasions, when asked for his passwords, he said he had refused and eventually his devices were returned to him and he was allowed to go.

But there was a new twist this time: when he refused to reveal his passwords, he was arrested under schedule 7 provisions of the terrorism act and held overnight at Heathrow Polar Park police station before being released on bail. He expects to be charged on Wednesday.

The case comes against the backdrop of a campaign gathering momentum in the US against proposals by the Trump administration to require travellers to the US to hand over social media account passwords as a condition of entry. The FlyDontSpy campaign is backed by a host of groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International.

Jim Killock, executive director of the UK-based Open Rights Group, expressed sympathy for Rabbani. “Using general terrorism powers to compel people to hand over passwords is inappropriate,” Killock said. The police should have a specific reason to acquire a password.

“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.

The issue raises parallels with David Miranda, partner of journalist Glenn Greenwald, who mounted a successful court challenge last year after being held at Heathrow under the same terrorist legislation in 2013 in the wake of the Edward Snowden whistleblowing story.

Rabbani, who said he is prepared to go to jail, said: “Forcing someone to hand over their passwords is like a digital strip-search. It is more pervasive than a physical strip-search. With a digital strip-search, it’s not merely the possessions you carry that are searched, it’s all your personal and professional life that’s online.”

He said he could not hand over his passwords because material in his laptop – documentation relating to a legal case being built around alleged torture involving the US intelligence agencies, which will eventually be made public – was privileged, and it was up to the person involved to give permission. That person declined and Rabbani said he was tied by this.

Rabbani, who studied economics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, joined Cage five years ago as managing director. In August last year, he became international director, a role that includes helping investigations of torture victims.

He argues that the real objective of schedule 7 is not stopping terrorists entering the UK, but as a tool to build up a huge data bank on thousands of UK citizens.

Cage calculates that more than 500,000 British nationals, mainly Muslims, have been detained since the legislation was introduced. But only 0.2% resulted in arrests, it says and, of these, an even smaller percentage were charged.

Rabbani is one of about 30,000 British nationals detained last year under schedule 7. Of these, he said only five resulted in arrests and he is one of them.

The Metropolitan police, without naming Rabbani, confirmed that a 35-year-old had been arrested at Heathrow on 20 November and placed on bail.