UK police could soon have the power to disable mobile phones, even before the user actually commits a crime


Last week, authorities somehow gained access to the last WhatsApp message sent by Westminster attacker Khalid Masood
Officers would be able to pre-empt offences and penalise members of the public when they haven't actually done anything wrong


UK police could soon have the power to remotely disable mobile phones, even before the user actually commits a crime.

The Digital Economy Act, which has just passed into law, contains a section stating that officers will be able to place restrictions on handsets that they believe are being used by drug dealers.

The Home Office has told The Independent that UK police haven't gained the powers yet, as "the introduction of powers included within Acts are often staggered and further details will be developed by the next Government".

The next Secretary of State needs to make regulations, which then have to be approved by both Houses of Parliament, before officers can start targeting phones.

Police also wouldn’t be able to disable devices directly.

Instead, the Director General or Deputy Director General of the National Crime Agency, or a police officer of the rank of superintendent or above, would have to apply for a court order that would then be sent to a telecommunications provider.

The government wants to crack down on so-called "deal-lines" used by gangs to remotely deal drugs in rural areas.

According to the government, these gangs exploit children and vulnerable people as couriers, using "specific" mobile phone numbers.

“Regulations may make provision conferring power on a court to make a drug dealing telecommunications restriction order,” reads a section of the Digital Economy Act.

“‘Drug dealing telecommunications restriction order’ means an order requiring a communications provider to take whatever action the order specifies for the purpose of preventing or restricting the use of communication devices in connection with drug dealing offences.”

It adds that users who commit a drug dealing offence, users “facilitating the commission by the user or another person” of a drug dealing offence and users “likely to facilitate the commission by the user or another person of a drug dealing offence (whether or not an offence is committed)” can be targeted by officers.

The Home Office says the final point relates specifically to deal-lines, but it could still cause widespread concern amongst the privacy-conscious, as it can be interpreted as police having the power to pre-empt criminal behaviour.

“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,’” Myles Jackman, the legal director for the Open Rights Group, told Motherboard.

Last week, authorities gained access to the last WhatsApp message left by Westminster attacker Khalid Masood.

Security agencies haven’t revealed how they managed to access the data, which is protected by end-to-end encryption, but say they have the technical expertise to repeat the process in future.

This suggests they can perform the same exploit to gain access to the messages stored in any other handset.


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