British immigration officers have been granted the power to hack into the phones and computers of refugees and asylum seekers since 2013, it has emerged.
Speaking to the Observer, a spokesperson for the Home Office confirmed that an amendment to the 1997 Police Act granted immigration officials the power of “property interference, including interference with equipment.”
The amendment allows officers to plant listening device in homes, cars and detention centers, as well as hacking into phones or computers.
“They may only use the power to investigate and prevent serious crime which relates to an immigration or nationality offence, and have done so since 2013,” Immigration Minister James Brokenshire told the Observer.
A Home Office briefing document reveals that some 700 UK border agency officers are entitled to these powers.
“Overall aim of these provisions is to ensure that immigration officers can deploy a full range of investigative techniques to deal effectively with all immigration crime,” the briefing reads.
Campaigners and civil liberties groups are concerned that these powers have been victimizing some of Britain’s most vulnerable individuals, including rape victims held in some of Britain’s notorious immigration detention centers, such as Yarl’s Wood.
“The entirely new power of routine communication interception at removal centers is a blatantly discriminatory move,” Silkie Carlo, of the rights group Liberty, told the Observer.
“These powers are an outrage. People in detention have the right to confidentiality, to speak privately to their lawyer and disclose often very sensitive information such as details of rape, torture, domestic violence and alleged abuse by officials. They have to be able to share private information without their phones being hacked,” the Black Women’s Rape Action Project’s Cristal Amiss said.
The revelations come as the government pushes ahead with Home Secretary Theresa May’s controversial Investigatory Powers Bill, a piece of legislation intended to extend and codify surveillance powers. The parliamentary Public Bill Committee is expected to complete its detailed examination of the bill by May 5.