The Home Office is under investigation after immigration officers extracted data from hundreds of mobile phones seized from migrants who crossed the English Channel, Sky News has learned.
The cases of approximately 850 people are being reviewed to see if Priti PatelThe department breached privacy laws, according to details released under the Freedom of Information Act.
Witness testimony in an ongoing forensic review said the data was captured in a program called Project Sunshine, which ultimately led to no arrests or investigations.
It is one of 17 incidents reported last year by the Home Office to the data protection regulator, alongside the accidental deletion of 234,000 criminal recordsand that could result in a £17m fine.
The inquiry comes as the Home Secretary faces growing pressure on small boat crossings in the Channel, which have increased exponentially despite her pledge to cut them by half.
More than 28,000 migrants were detected making the perilous journey last year – 37 of whom drowned – and a forecast suggested that figure nearly double to nearly 60,000 in 2022.
What happened ?
Migrants detained at Tug Haven in the Port of Dover in 2020 – a facility which inspectors have described as ‘fundamentally inadequate’ and which has since been closed – have been asked to hand over their phones and passwords to immigration officers .
Officers then extracted “location data, chat history, photographs, etc.” hundreds of such devices, according to information Sky News has received from the Home Office.
Lucie Audibert, a lawyer at Privacy International who intervened in the judicial review, told Sky News: “Formally the Home Office was using its search and seizure powers under the Immigration Act to seize the phones.
“It was extracting data on the basis that it might reveal evidence of criminal activity such as human trafficking, not necessarily perpetrated by the phone owners themselves, but where they might find evidence that someone another had smuggled people into the UK.”
The policy is no longer in place
The migrants behind the judicial review – which is expected to deliver its judgment in the coming weeks – have complained that they have not been able to contact their family or their lawyers in the context of their asylum applications due to the seizure of their their phones.
The first of the big questions to be answered by judicial review concerned the legality of “blanket searches and seizures”, particularly as migrants are meant to be dealt with under the immigration regime and not the criminal regime, said Mrs Audibert.
“The second argument that was really at the heart of the matter was the proportionality of this policy. So even if there is justification in terms of operational need, do you have to seize everyone’s phones and do you have a legal basis to do so even if these people themselves are not suspected of criminal offences?
Home Office officials told the High Court that the policy of seizing all mobile phones was no longer in place.
Updated guidelines were shared among staff last July, after legal proceedings began. It states: “Digital devices should not be routinely obtained from victims and witnesses.”
Read more: Anger in Kent over ‘the ease’ of crossing the Channel and entering the UK
Ms Audibert said the Home Office suggested data from the migrants’ phones had been used to prosecute the smugglers. It is unclear whether the data was used to assess asylum claims, she added.
Privacy International cited testimony from the Home Office indicating that the data extractions resulted in 100 leads for law enforcement between April and August 2020, but no operational activity.
When the process was refined in August, it generated no leads. No new data was added to Project Sunshine after September.
A Home Office spokesperson declined to comment on the ongoing legal proceedings, but said: “We make no apologies for prosecuting those responsible for facilitating dangerous Channel crossings.
“Not only are these crossings a clear abuse of our immigration laws, they also impact the UK taxpayer, put lives at risk and our ability to help refugees arriving in the UK through safe channels. and legal. Rightly, the British public has had enough.”
Not all of the phones seized were data extracted, but the Home Office has reported to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) on hundreds of cases in which data was taken.
An ICO spokesperson confirmed to Sky News: “The Home Office have informed us of an incident and we are investigating.”
The Home Office flagged the cases as a single incident at the ICO a month after the privacy watchdog published a report criticizing the lack of regulation regarding the extraction of data from mobile phones, particularly by the police, following campaigns demanding end to the “digital strip search” of rape victims.