Chiledoc Berlinale 2024

Leave your phone at home

SURVEILLANCE / The blunt force of the UK's terrorism laws.
Director: Kate Stonehill
Producer: Steven Lake
Distributor:
Country: UK

Ask most British citizens to list their fundamental legal rights if accused of a crime, and they are likely to cite «innocent until proven guilty» and habeas corpus – freedom from illegal detention.

Schedule 7 of the UK’s Terrorism Act of 2000, which covers the detention of people at airports, railway stations and other entry points into the United Kingdom, turns all that on its head.

Under this provision of a law that has proven to be deployed as a dragnet for gathering information – principally from British Muslims – since a Labour government introduced it in March 2000, police and counter-terrorism agents have the power to detain anyone they wish for up to six hours without charge for questioning as that person enters the UK. These operations may be targeted or done at random, though given the pattern of detentions «at random» is just an excuse to hide behind the law. A detainee is guilty of a crime if they refuse to hand over the passwords to their digital devices – in other words, they are guilty until they can prove their innocence.

…police and counter-terrorism agents have the power to detain anyone they wish for up to six hours without charge for questioning as that person enters the UK.

Heavy-handed intrusion

Kate Stonehill’s troubling documentary Phantom Parrot (the name refers to a secret UK government programme to obtain information from the computers, phones and other digital devices of suspects, that was first revealed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, lifts the lid on how ‘#terrorism’ is used as an excuse by the UK government for heavy-handed intrusions into civil liberties. Other governments do the same: virtually every police force in the UK has a department for forensically searching digital devices, and law enforcement agencies in every state of America employ sophisticated programmes to hack into digital devices.

The film focuses on the case of Muhammad Rabbani, a director of London-based CAGE. This international campaign organisation offers independent advocacy for people and communities impacted by the ‘war on terrorism.’

A British Muslim, Rabbani worked closely with Ali al-Marri, a Qatari-born US resident who was held in US prisons for eight years after being accused, in 2003, of being an «enemy combatant» by US authorities. Lawyers for al-Marri obtained thousands of documents proving that his legal rights had been ignored and that he had been tortured and psychologically abused by prison authorities and other US officials. Although his lawyer urged him to plead not guilty to the charges against him, in 2009, he entered a guilty plea to one conspiracy charge to provide material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organisation. As a result, he was sentenced to eight years in prison. With time served, he was released in 2015 and returned to Qatar.

CAGE took up his case, and it was when returning from Qatar, Rabbani was stopped and detained at Heathrow Airport.

Stonehill cleverly reconstructs his interrogation using a computer-generated digital image of the incident, in which human bodies are rendered as a series of lines on a screen. We hear his voice and that of the interrogating officer. Asked to provide passwords for his phone and computer, he refuses. Under Schedule 7, refusal to provide those passwords is an offence, carrying a sentence of up to three months in prison. Just by refusing to hand over information that the police were fishing for, Rabbani was effectively labelled as guilty – as a ‘terrorist.’ He says all he was doing was protecting the confidentiality of a vulnerable client.

Phantom Parrot Kate Stonehill
Phantom Parrot, a film by Kate Stonehill

Digital forensic examinations

Stonehill’s film dives into the mechanics of digital forensic examination of devices, with lengthy sections taken from a US training session for would-be investigators. And there is a short coda on the future of surveillance – how the way we walk, or the odours we give off, can identify us and our state of mind or intentions must more accurately than current facial recognition technology.

Rabanni took his case to court – and the judge was forced to find him guilty, although she conceded he was a man of good character. He was given a conditional discharge – but that still means he is recorded as guilty of an offence under the terrorism act.

virtually every police force in the UK has a department for forensically searching digital devices, and law enforcement agencies in every state of America employ sophisticated programmes to hack into digital devices.

A billion pieces

It is estimated that the British government spy centre, GCHQ, in Cheltenham, holds a billion pieces of information obtained under the Phantom Parrot programme.

That is an awful lot of information. It is just a shame that it does not seem to do much, if anything, to protect British citizens – which is the government’s reason for trawling for data.

A third and final report, published in early March, into the Manchester Arena terrorist bombing of 2017, in which 22 people died, concluded that MI5 – Britain’s domestic intelligence agency – had enough information on the suicide bomber who set off the explosion to have arrested him well before the incident but failed to act.

With that level of incompetence, best to leave your telephone at home.

Phantom Parrot screens its World Premiere as part of the CPH:DOX F:ACT Award Competition

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Nick Holdsworth
Nick Holdsworthhttp://nickholdsworth.net/
Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.

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