UK police
The new powers are aimed at drug dealing but privacy advocates say they could be extended Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Privacy advocates have voiced their concerns over a new power given to UK police that will allow them to disable mobile phones if they are suspected of being used in illegal activities. Under updates to the Digital Economy Bill, which came into force on 27 April, police can order the shutdown of communications on a mobile device if it is found to be used by a person involved in drug dealing.

However, the power also allows authorities to restrict or disable a person's mobile phone communications if they are suspected of even being associated with drug-dealing activity, whether or not they have actually committed a crime.

As reported by Motherboard, the amendments to section 80 of the Digital Economy Bill state that authorities can impose the so-called ''drug dealing telecommunications restriction order'' on any mobile phone user they believe is "facilitating the commission by the user or another person of a drug dealing offence", or otherwise "likely to facilitate the commission by the user or another person of a drug dealing offence, whether or not an offence is committed."

Myles Jackman, legal director at Open Rights Group, called the new police power "pre-crime intrusion into individual liberty that fails to meet the test of being necessary and proportionate."

Jackman added: "This is an entirely unprecedented and potentially draconian power allowing police to prevent the use of phones or other communications devices, whether or not an offence is committed."

While the order relates to criminal activity under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and section 5 of the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, there are concerns that it could be used to grant UK authorities further powers over mobile communications later down the line.

"Having a power like this for one purpose could open the door to similar powers for other purposes," UAE Law School lecturer, Paul Bernal, told IBTimes UK. "We should be very careful to watch for other powers being brought in."

Bernal, a specialist in media law, internet privacy and human rights, said that the technical capabilities of the police enabling them to enforce restrictions on, or even completely disable, mobile communications was also a cause for worry. "If you have this legal power, you have to have the technological capability to make it work," he said.

"Remote switch-off of mobile phones can be done via the service provider, but they may be looking at other means of doing this – effectively, looking at hacks to do so. That should disturb all of us."

A spokesperson from the UK's National Crime Agency confirmed to Motherboard that it had the ability to exact this power since the passing of the Digital Economy Bill last week, which also introduced mandatory age verification checks to websites containing pornographic material.

'A slippery slope'

Bernal said this presented another big privacy issue as it could involve internet service providers creating "online ID cards" containing users' browsing habits and identifiable information.

Under the new Investigatory Powers Bill passed in November last year, 48 organisations now have the power to request information regarding users' browsing habits if deemed to be in the interest of national security.

"This is something of a slippery slope," said Bernal. "If you have to prove your ID for one legal thing, are you going to have to prove it for another? If they build something to verify ID for one purpose, won't it be used for another purpose? It is hard to see how they will verify your age without verifying a whole lot of other things about you – which in turn has implications for privacy.

"I think there will be much more emerging in the next few months. Just like the Digital Economy Act 2010, this one was rushed through in the 'wash-up' period which has meant far less scrutiny than was needed, and a lot of things will have slipped through that are either dangerously loose or thoroughly unworkable."