Three asylum seekers brought a case to the high court on Tuesday claiming that the home secretary operated a secret, blanket policy to seize mobile phones from people arriving on small boats and then download the data from them.
The unpublished policy for the handover of the new arrivals’ phones operated between April and November 2020. It is likely to have involved the confiscation of thousands of mobile phones, the court heard.
Opening the case, a judicial review, Tom de La Mare QC, representing one of the three asylum seekers, referred to as HM, told the court that after Home Office officials seized their phones they were “bullied” into handing over their pin numbers so that officials could unlock personal information including emails, photos and videos and download them to an intelligence database called Project Sunshine.
He added that those who had their phones confiscated on arrival in the UK were given a receipt containing a Home Office phone number to call to try to retrieve their phones. Many waited several months before getting their phones back.
“They were simply given a number which, evidence is unchallenged, was never answered,” he said.
The court heard that HM lost contact with his wife and child due to no longer having his phone to call them.
“He didn’t know if they were alive or dead,” said de La Mare. He was unable to call his loved ones to say he had arrived safely in the UK because he did not have his phone, nor the numbers stored in it.
He accused the Home Office of “serious illegality” in operating the policy in “complete secrecy”.
He said that the number of phones confiscated during several months in 2020 before lawyers started to investigate what was happening was probably thousands.
He added that initially the Home Office denied the existence of this policy but later confirmed it.
It was “evidence of the chaos that was prevailing”, he said.
The three asylum seekers bringing the case all claim they had their phones seized between April and September 2020. One has been recognised as a potential victim of trafficking.
They claim their phones were taken almost immediately after they arrived, before they could take a note of the contact details stored in the phones.
The three asylum seekers claim that the Home Office’s policies of seizing phones, taking pin numbers and extracting data is unlawful, because the government does not have any legal power to do this with newly arrived asylum seekers, “who are the most vulnerable in society”. They also say the policies were unlawful because they operated in a blanket fashion, were unpublished and breached human rights and data protection laws.
Privacy International, an organisation that specialises in data and privacy issues, has been granted permission to intervene in the case.
The case continues.