UK Police Charge Activist Under Terrorism Law for Refusing to Hand Over Passwords

Borders are hostile places for keeping information secure.

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May 17 2017, 12:41pm

Anastos Kol/Flickr

On Sunday May 14, Middle East Eye reported that Muhammad Rabbani, the director of human rights group CAGE that focuses on terrorism cases, was arrested after refusing to give up his phone and computer passwords while crossing the UK border in 2016.

Now, the Metropolitan Police has formally charged Rabbani for obstructing an examination under a controversial piece of terrorism legislation. Experts say this may be the first arrest made for refusing to disclose a password under that specific section, and that the legislation grants police officers sweeping powers to search individuals and their devices without the approval of a judge.

"On 20 November 2016, at Heathrow Airport, he did [ sic] wilfully obstructed, or sought to frustrate, an examination or search under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000, contrary to paragraph 18(1)(c) of that schedule," the Metropolitan Police Service's brief announcement, published on Wednesday, reads.

On its website, CAGE describes itself as "an independent advocacy organisation working to empower communities impacted by the War on Terror. The organisation highlights campaign against state policies, striving for a world free from oppression and injustice."

The organisation is built of a small team, and often faces criticism partly due to the sensitive focus of its work. CAGE's cases include the family of Michael Adebolajo, who was convicted of killing a soldier in London in 2013, and Shaker Aamer, a British resident who has spent more than a decade in Guantanamo Bay.

Rabbani previously told The Guardian that his laptop contained material related to a currently non-public legal case around alleged torture conducted by US intelligence agencies. Rabbani has been stopped under Schedule 7 many times before, and also refused to provide passwords when asked, but this time he was arrested, the report continues.

Read more: The Motherboard Guide to Not Getting Hacked

It's worth remembering how much data police officers can potentially gain access to via a seized mobile phone or computer. It isn't as simple as just an individual's files, but commonly-used forensics technology makes it trivial to copy location data, emails, internet browsing histories, call records, and more.

"That Schedule 7 powers are being used to compel disclosure of passwords is concerning on the face of it, but the fact that an activist has now been arrested for refusing is plainly inappropriate," Eric King, visiting lecturer in surveillance law at Queen Mary University of London, told Motherboard in a Twitter direct message.

"As far as I am aware, this is the first time an arrest has been made for refusing to disclose a password under Schedule 7. Muhammad Rabbani is right to contest it," King added.

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