UK Cops May Soon Be Able to Remotely Disable Phones Even if No Crime Has Been Committed

The power relates to phones suspected of being used for drug dealing, but in some cases, a phone can be disabled even if no offense has taken place.

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May 3 2017, 11:09am

London Metropolitan Police. Image: Yukiko Matsuoka

UK police could acquire a new power. Last Friday, the Digital Economy Act became law, much of which focuses around restricting access to online pornography, and what sort of sexual acts can legally be included in porn.

But with the legislation's passing, law enforcement agencies may soon be able to remotely disable or restrict a mobile phone if it is suspected of being used for drug dealing or related to it, and in some cases regardless of whether a crime has actually been committed, according to legal commentators.

"The 'drug dealing telecoms restriction order' contained within Section 80 of the Digital Economy Act 2017 is an entirely unprecedented and potentially draconian power allowing police to prevent the use of phones or other communications devices," Myles Jackman, legal director for activist organisation Open Rights Group, told Motherboard in an email.

As for how this would likely work in practice, a police officer ranked superintendent or higher, or the Director General or Deputy Director General at the National Crime Agency, would apply for a court order that would then be presented to a communications provider—a telco company—ordering it to restrict the specified device or phone number.

Judging by recently published amendments, some of these orders could last indefinitely, and they seemingly could also be used against people who have not committed a crime, or who are not drug dealers themselves. Orders can apply if the user is "facilitating the commission by the user or another person of a drug dealing offense," or "conduct of the user that is likely to facilitate the commission by the user or another person of a drug dealing offence (whether or not an offence is committed)."

A section of the legislation dealing with restricting drug dealers' phones.

Jackman added: "It is hard to argue that this pre-crime intrusion into individual liberty is necessary and proportionate when it can be authorised 'whether or not an offence is committed'."

A spokesperson for the National Crime Agency confirmed the agency would be able to use this new power. The Metropolitan Police directed requests for comment to the Home Office, which did not provide a statement.

Correction: The exact point at which this new power may become fully available to law enforcement is unclear. Regulations around the power will be subject to parliamentary procedure, and will require the approval of both Houses of Parliament. This piece and the headline have been updated to reflect that. Motherboard regrets the error.

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