Phantom Parrot and the Orwellian Reality of Surveillance

A recently released documentary, Phantom Parrot, sheds light on the United Kingdom’s extensive state surveillance apparatus. The movie’s namesake comes from the UK government’s “disquieting” data collection program, “Phantom Parrot,” which targets particular individuals of interest to the government. 

One of Phantom Parot’s focal points is the United Kingdom’s Terrorism Act 2000, which grants police sweeping powers to search individuals at the country’s borders without needing explicit grounds for suspicion of terrorism. In many ways, the legislation is reminiscent of the USA PATRIOT Act. A component of the Terrorism Act, schedule 7, enacted before the advent of smartphones, allows officers to compel detainees to surrender their PINs and passcodes to all their devices under threat of prosecution and imprisonment. The documentary follows the case of Muhammad Rabbani. Rabbani’s refusal to hand over his PIN upon returning from Qatar led to his detention and eventual arrest. He was then convicted for “wilfully obstructing police.”

In May of last year, British journalist Kit Klarenberg was intercepted and interrogated after arriving in London from Serbia. According to the National Union of Journalists, which issued a statement on the chilling effects of such practices, Klarenberg “was forced to hand over his electronic devices, memory cards, bank cards and accompanying passwords. DNA swabs and his fingerprints were taken whilst he was detained and questioned by officers about his journalistic work.”

The parallels between such border practices covered in “Phantom Parrot” and the border search exception to the Fourth Amendment in the United States are striking. In both cases, individuals face invasive searches and potential seizures of their digital devices without suspicion, though case law has been moving positively in the United States. 

In The Guardian piece about the film, Gareth Peirce, the human rights lawyer who represented Rabbani, aptly notes the desensitization to state abuse prevalent in society. The normalization of such infringements on civil liberties underscores the importance of documentaries like Phantom Parrot

As of this writing, Phantom Parrot is not yet available for streaming, though you may watch the trailer here. For more on the USA PATRIOT Act and border search exceptions, consider Anthony Gregory’s book American Surveillance: Intelligence, Privacy, and the Fourth Amendment

Jonathan Hofer is a Research Associate at the Independent Institute. He has written extensively on both California and national public policy issues. He holds a BA in political science from the University of California, Berkeley. His research interests include privacy law, student privacy, local surveillance, and the impact of emerging technologies on civil liberties.
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