Of rights and dignity in detention: The new powers under the Investigatory Powers Act 2016


The Investigatory Powers Act has just become law. How will this impact people in immigration detention?


Twentieth and twenty-first century surveillance culture is often compared to a panopticon, a vast metaphorical prison complex with a central tower looking out over all the cells. In this tower sits a watchman. While you cannot see the watchman it is safe to assume you are under observation. Consciously or subconsciously, this alters your behaviour.


Last month the Investigatory  Powers Act 2016 received Royal  Assent. Also known as the  Snooper’s Charter, the law will  give the Government  unprecedented powers to access  our private communications. According to NSA whistleblower and privacy campaigner, Edward Snowden:

“The UK has just legalised the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy. It goes further than many autocracies.”

The new law legislates for mass surveillance, permits hacking and data profiling. While there are certain safeguards in place, these have largely been condemned as inadequate by campaigners.

banksyA little known part of the law relates to immigration detention centres. Under clauses 37-44, limited forms of lawful interception are set out. These include interception with consent; interception in prisons and psychiatric hospitals; interception for certain regulatory and enforcement purposes; interception in immigration detention facilities, and; interception for certain business purposes. In these circumstances, the safeguards do not apply.

Where rights are severely limited and the population is already under strict surveillance, what impact will this new law have on people in detention? This week I caught up with Kasonga from the Freed Voices group to discuss his thoughts on the new law and its potential for abuse.

‘When you are in detention, you are stripped of your right to privacy. Confidentiality is really just a word, there is no privacy when it comes to your life. You are completely exposed and this is legitimised by the system.’

‘The right to confidential communication contributes to the building of trust and respect between detainees and the whole system – it allows detainees to feel human. To take it away is another step toward their dehumanisation. If a detainee feels confident he has been granted confidentiality and feels that he’s being treated as a human being, he can open up.’

In detention, channels of communication are both vital and limited. People in detention often describe the loneliness they feel being isolated from their families and communities. While they have access to the internet and telephone, they cannot use social media sites and their phones cannot have a camera or access to the internet. Often these channels will be used to discuss confidential information pertaining to their legal or medical history, which could include sensitive details of torture, sexual abuse, or abuse by officials.  Mass surveillance creates a climate of fear, as free speech is chilled and people are more inclined to self censor.

‘Practically speaking, it will slow communication between people. Where you are fearful you are being monitored, you are going to try to see people physically. It’s going make populations of families feel hopeless and powerless while they try to find all legal weapons to fight back. It will restore the culture of disbelief and distrust between immigrants and the state. It is a huge step back for freedom of expression.’

The categories of lawful interception are noteworthy, in particular the fact that this allows for the interception of both prisoners and those in immigration detention centres. While the distinction between crime and immigration must clearly be maintained, the blurring of the two has been unfolding since the 1980s, with the development of the detention estate and the passing of increasingly draconian immigration laws.

‘The difference between immigration detainees and criminals is huge. A criminal is someone who is paying for what he did to the community and is under correction. A detainee is just detained for administrative convenience. In detention you are always vulnerable to feel treated like criminal, even though you did not do anything. By grouping them together, it is like the Home Office is admitting that detention is part of punishment. It reinforces the perception that those in detention are there because they have committed a crime.’

Those who defend the need for greater surveillance will often argue that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. Although this assumes that the law will not be used to target specific people.  While equality under the law may be legislated, it is not always meted out in reality.

‘It’s not about hiding something it’s about what is natural to the human, and that is self esteem. It comes from what you cannot disclose to just anyone. Where you are not protected, you are not a human being. This is natural, that’s the way I see it.’

‘Is this how we want our society to look? What about democracy? This law is authoritarian. Coming from a former dictatorship, I can say that information is very important. This system of government can only prevail if information is passed. When the government holds someone’s information, it’s easy to manipulate for their own aim, whether this aim is positive or negative, and that’s very scary.