Borderlines

Think back to the year 2000. New York’s World Trade Center still stood. Personal digital assistants were a niche market. There were no smartphones (the iPhone arrived in 2006) or tablets (the iPad took until 2010). Social media was nascent; Facebook first opened in 2004. The Good Friday agreement was just two years old, and for many in Britain “terrorists” were still “Irish”. *That* was when the UK passed the Terrorism Act (2000).

Usually when someone says the law can’t keep up with technological change they mean that technology can preempt regulation at speed. What the documentary Phantom Parrot shows, however, is that technological change can profoundly alter the consequences of laws already on the books. The film’s worked example is Schedule 7 of the 2000 Terrorism Act, which empowers police to stop, question, search, and detain people passing through the UK’s borders. They do not need prior authority or suspicion, but may only stop and question people for the purpose of determining whether the individual may be or have been concerned in the commission, preparation, or instigation of acts of terrorism.

Today this law means that anyone ariving at the UK border may be compelled to unlock access to data charting their entire lives. The Hansard record of the debate on the bill shows clearly that lawmakers foresaw problems: the classification of protesters as terrorists, the uselessness of fighting terrorism by imprisoning the innocent (Jeremy Corbyn), the reversal of the presumption of innocence. But they could not foresee how far-reaching the powers the bill granted would become.

The film’s framing story begins in November 2016, when Muhammed Rabbani arrived at London’s Heathrow Airport from Doha and was stopped and questioned by police under Schedule 7. They took his phone and laptop and asked for his passwords. He refused to supply them. On previous occasions, when he had similarly refused, they’d let him go. This time, he was arrested. Under Schedule 7, the penalty for such a refusal can be up to three months in jail.

Rabbani is managing director of CAGE International, a human rights organization that began by focusing on prisoners seized under the war on terror and expanded its mission to cover “confronting other rule of law abuses taking place under UK¬†counter-terrorism strategy”. Rabbani’s refusal to disclose his passwords was, he said later, because he was carrying 30,000 confidential documents relating to a client’s case. A lawyer can claim client confidentiality, but not NGOs. In 2018, the appeals court ruled the password demands were lawful.

In September 2017, Rabbani was convicted. He was g iven a 12-month conditional discharge and ordered to pay ¬£620 in costs. As Rabbani says in the film, “The law made me a terrorist.” No one suspected him of being a terrorist or placing anyone in danger; but the judge made clear she had no choice under the law and so he nonetheless has been convicted of a terrorism offense. On appeal in 2018, his conviction was upheld. We see him collect his returned devices – five years on from his original detention.

Britain is not the only country that regards him with suspicion. Citing his conviction, in 2023 France banned him, and, he claims, Poland deported him.

Unsurprisingly, CAGE is on the first list of groups that may be dubbed “extremist” under the new definition of extremism released last week by communities secretary Michael Gove. The direct consequence of this designation is a ban on participation in public life – chiefly, meetings with central and local government. The expansion of the meaning of “extremist”, however, is alarming activists on all sides.

Director Kate Stonehill tells the story of Rabbani’s detention partly through interviews and partly through a reenactment using wireframe-style graphics and a synthesized voice that reads out questions and answers from the interview transcripts. A cello of doom provides background ominance. Laced through this narrative are others. A retired law enforcement office teaches a class to use extraction and analysis tools, in which we see how extensive the information available to them really is. Ali Al-Marri and his lawyer review his six years of solitary detention as an enemy combatant in Charleston, South Carolina. Lastly, Stonehill calls on Ryan Gallegher’s reporting, which exposed the titular Phantom Parrot, the program to exploit the data retained under Schedule 7. There are no records of how many downloads have been taken.

The retired law enforcement officer’s class is practically satire. While saying that he himself doesn’t want to be tracked for safety reasons, he tells students to grab all the data they can when they have the opportunity. They are in Texas: “Consent’s not even a problem.” Start thinking outside of the box, he tells them.

What the film does not stress is this: rights are largely suspended at all borders. In 2022, the UK extended Schedule 7 powers to include migrants and refugees arriving in boats.

The movie’s future is bleak. At the Chaos Computer Congress, a speaker warns that gait recognition, eye movement detection, and speech analysis (accents, emotion) and and other types of analysis will be much harder to escape and enable watchers to do far more with the ever-vaster stores of data collected from and about each of us.

“These powers are capable of being misused,” said Douglas Hogg in the 1999 Commons debate. “Most powers that are capable of being misused will be misused.” The bill passed 210-1.

Illustrations: Still shot from the wireframe reenactment of Rabbani’s questioning in Phantom Parrot.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon