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Schedule 7: Realities of the 'digital strip search'

Terrorism Act victims feel trapped and isolated after being threatened with arrest if they refuse to hand over passwords to police
Police officer accessing mobile phone data via ACESO software (Screengrab: ACESO)

It was morning, raining and Syed Bokhari was en route to Harwich, a port on the east coast of England, driving frantically to catch a ferry to Holland. 

Arriving two hours before the ferry was due to depart, he parked his car inside the port, waiting to drive onto the ship. 

He was taking his three-month-old son to meet his grandparents for the first time. 

"It was a big deal for the family as it was his first international trip to see his extended family," Bokhari told Middle East Eye. 

"We [had] planned this trip for a while and made sure we could stop every two hours to take breaks for the baby."

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Sitting inside his car, as he waited for the ferry to sail, two policemen approached and asked him to get out of his vehicle. 

Walking out onto the main port, while his wife tended to his son, officers from Special Branch, the Metropolitan Police's counter-terrorism unit, escorted him into a room and attempted to take his phone.

"They put me in an interrogation room and told me they were holding me under terrorism legislation," said Bokhari. 

"Then they grabbed my phone, threatening me, saying they can hold me for six hours and miss the ferry." 

Bokhari was eventually released after being detained for an hour, but like thousands stopped under "Schedule 7" powers, he was not given a reason as to why he was stopped.

No judicial authorisation

Introduced as part of the 2000 Terrorism Act, Schedule 7 gives police and some immigration officers the power to hold any person at an airport or port for six hours without any cause of suspicion, to determine if the individual could be a terrorist. 

The act has come under renewed scrutiny in recent days, after Mohammed Rabbani, the international director of Cage, a UK-based human rights campaign group, was arrested after refusing to give up the password to his phone when stopped under Schedule 7.

Rabbani, who had described the act of searching through electronic devices as a "digital strip search", could face imprisonment for refusing to give up the password to his phone.

"With a password, you can enter into a person's life," Rabbani said. "Everything is digitised these days, sometimes going back years and years. So when that is violated and you are forced to surrender a password without reason or suspicion, that really feels like a digital strip search.”

Many who have endured Schedule 7 stops told MEE that they were "digitally strip searched" and threatened with arrest by the police and border enforcement agents if they refused to hand over passwords.  

"Every time they detain us under Schedule 7, the police take our phones, and make us give our passwords," said Qusay Kader, a doctor of Libyan descent based in Nottingham. "When they took my phone and wanted my password, they said I have the right to refuse, but if I do, then they'll just arrest me."

Kader, who was born and raised in Britain, told MEE that since 2012, he has been stopped under Schedule 7 every time he flew out from Britain. His experience at airports had led him to not carry his phone when going abroad. 

"Going through your phone takes half an hour at best, but the fact that they can browse it at will, that's why it feels so invasive," said Kader.

Sitting at a hospital cafe where he had just finished a 12-hour shift, Kader explained how officers took his fingerprints and DNA, and demanded passwords to electronic devices, so "they can download the data on the phone using a software called ACESO". 

"The only thing they want is the unlock code because their software can only download the data if the screen lock is opened."

UK Border agent accessing mobile phone data using ACESO software (Screengrab: ACESO )

According to David Anderson QC, the British government's former independent reviewer of terrorist legislation, the Terrorism Act "provides an exception to the general requirement of judicial authorisation".

Schedule 7 therefore, "grants port officers (generally the police) a broad power to require persons passing through ports or airports to provide their property – including a telephone or laptop - without judicial authorisation," wrote Anderson in 2015.  

Electronic devices are then kept for a week, but the data taken from the devices can be retained for a longer period of time. 

Intelligence gathering 

A defining aspect of the accounts given by individuals who spoke to MEE was how Schedule 7 stops were used by security services to gather intelligence. 

Anderson has been reported to have described Schedule 7 stops as a useful intelligence gathering exercise for the security services. 

Kader told MEE that every time he was detained at the airport, the officers had a list of names of people "he may know".

"Each time they've detained me, they always have a list of 'people I may know' where they read out the names of friends I went to university with," said Kader. 

One person's name that came up repeatedly during Kader's Schedule 7 stops was his old university friend Jamal Uddin, who is a doctor and community activist. 

Uddin, himself, had been the victim of Schedule 7 stops, during which Kader's name was read to him from the list of people "he may know".

"When I heard Qusay's name being read back to me, it was surreal," said Uddin. 

"I think it's to develop overlapping profiles as us, so they can build a case around our friendship circle," Uddin said as Kader nodded approvingly. 

Kader said it makes "no sense" that he and Uddin are targeted. 

Mohammed Rabbani, international director of CAGE could be sent to prison for not handing over the password to his phone (MEE/Osha al-Mossalami)

"We are law-abiding citizens that work hard to make this society and country a better place to live in, yet we get treated like criminals at the airports for no apparent reason, except perhaps, because of the colour of our skin, or the way our names sound," Kader said. 

Like Kader, Uddin has been detained under Schedule 7 since 2012 every time he attempted to board a plane.

"First few times you'd hope it was just coincidence that they pick on you, but after a while, it becomes something you mentally prepare for," said Uddin. 

Speaking in a Scottish accent, Uddin explained how the police interrogated him when he was stopped under Schedule 7. "They threaten you with arrest if you don't hand over your password, ask about people you might know and sometimes even go as far as asking you why you think you've been picked on by the security services."

His perception of discrimination is further compounded by the damning statistic that 88 percent of individuals who were searched under Schedule 7 had been from an ethnic minority background or did not state their race.

'Feeling trapped'

The individuals who have spoken to MEE said they had never been involved or charged with terrorism.

Yet the experience left them feeling helpless about holding the authorities to account. 

Bokhari spoke of feeling angry and trapped after being stopped more than five times in the last 18 months. 

He said that the hostility surrounding Muslims had created a "climate of fear towards coming forward".

"Even when you're innocent, you're left feeling like you have no-one to turn to for help," said Bokhari. 

"This experience was different than the others because my son was with me for the first time, and he had to see his father be interrogated by anti-terror police like a criminal.

"If he grows up seeing that, then what does that leave him feeling about the world he’s been brought into?"

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