Author : Alexander Martin
The investigation, which could result in a £17m fine, comes as Priti Patel faces increasing pressure over three consecutive years in which small boat crossings have risen.
The Home Office is being investigated after immigration officers extracted data from hundreds of mobile phones seized off migrants who crossed the Channel, Sky News has learnt.
The cases of approximately 850 individuals are being examined to see if Priti Patel‘s department broke privacy laws, according to details released under the freedom of information act.
Witness testimony in an ongoing Judicial Review has revealed the data was captured in a programme called Project Sunshine which did not ultimately lead to any arrests or investigations.
It is one of 17 incidents the Home Office reported last year to the data protection regulator, alongside the accidental deletion of 234,000 criminal records, and it could result in a £17m fine.
The investigation comes as the home secretary faces increasing pressure over small boat crossings in the English Channel which have risen exponentially despite her pledging to halve them.
More than 28,000 migrants were detected making the perilous journey last year – 37 of whom drowned – and a forecast has suggested the figure will almost double to nearly 60,000 in 2022.
What took place?
Migrants detained at Tug Haven in the Port of Dover in 2020 – a facility which inspectors described as “fundamentally unsuitable” and has since been closed – were told to hand over their phones and passwords to immigration officers.
Officers then extracted “location data, conversation history, photographs etc” from hundreds of these devices, according to material Sky News received from the Home Office.
Lucie Audibert, a legal officer at Privacy International which has intervened in the Judicial Review, told Sky News: “Officially 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 may reveal evidence of criminal activities such as people smuggling, not necessarily perpetrated by the phone owners themselves, but where they could find evidence that someone else had been smuggling people into the UK.”
Policy no longer in place
The migrants who initiated the Judicial Review – which is expected to deliver its judgment in the coming weeks – have complained that because their phones were seized they were unable to contact their families or lawyers as part of their asylum applications.
The first of the big questions to be answered by the Judicial Review was about the legality of the “blanket search and seizures”, in particular as migrants are meant to be treated under the immigration regime and not the criminal one, Ms Audibert said.
“The second argument that was really at the core of the case was the proportionality of this policy. So even if there’s a justification terms of operational need, do you need to seize everyone’s phones and do you have a legal basis to do so even if these people themselves aren’t suspected of criminal offences?”
Home Office representatives told the High Court the policy to seize all mobile phones is no longer in place.
Updated guidance was shared among staff last July, after the legal proceedings had begun. It states: “Digital devices should not routinely be obtained from victims and witnesses.”
Ms Audibert said the Home Office suggested data from migrants’ phones had been used to prosecute people smugglers. It is not clear whether the data was used to assess asylum claims, she added.
Privacy International quoted Home Office testimony stating t
the data extractions resulted in 100 leads for law enforcement between April and August of 2020, but no operational activity.
When the process was refined in August it generated no leads at all. No new data was added to Project Sunshine after September.
A Home Office spokesperson declined to comment on ongoing legal proceedings but said: “We make no apologies for going after those responsible for facilitating dangerous Channel crossings.
“Not only are these crossings an overt abuse of our immigration laws but they also impact on the UK taxpayer, risk lives and our ability to help refugees who come to the UK via safe and legal routes. Rightly, the British public has had enough.”
Not all seized phones had data extracted, but the Home Office reported itself to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) over hundreds of cases in which data was taken.
A spokesperson for the ICO confirmed to Sky News: “The Home Office made us aware of an incident and we are making enquiries.”
The Home Office reported the cases as a single incident to the ICO a month after the privacy watchdog published a report criticising the lack of regulations around extracting data from mobile phones, in particular by police, following campaigns demanding an end to the “digital strip search” of rape victims.