U.K.'s updated Drug Enforcement law lets police shut down some phones

Amendments to the U.K.’s Digital Economy Act let authorities disable smartphones if they’re suspected of being involved in illegal activity. That’s according to International Business Times, which reports that changes enacted this month give U.K. police the power to restrict the communications of drug suspects — even when there’s no conclusive proof they’ve committed a crime.

“This is an entirely unprecedented and potentially draconian power allowing police to prevent the use of phone and other communications devices, whether or not an offense is committed,” Myles Jackman, legal director at Open Rights Group, told IB Times UK.

Amendments to section 80 of the Digital Economy Act, which came into effect on April 27, authorize U.K. law enforcement to impose a “drug dealing telecommunications restriction order” on smartphone users suspected of “facilitating the commission by the user or another person of a drug-dealing offence” or “likely to facilitate the commission by the use of another person of a drug-dealing offence, whether or not an offence is committed.”

The U.K.’s National Crime Agency confirmed to Motherboard that it has the ability to enforce restrictions on — or completely disable — phone communications since the passing of the new law.

“Having a power like this for one purpose could open the door to similar powers for other purposes,” Paul Bernal, a UAE Law School lecturer, told the IB Times U.K. “We should be very careful to watch for other powers being brought in.”

The amendments are in fact on firm legal footing. They’re meant to buttress two of the U.K.’s existing criminal statutes: The Misuse on Drugs Act of 1971, and section 5 of the Psychoactive Substances Act of 2016. But they may also represent a slippery slope.

“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,” Bernal told IB Times U.K. “That should disturb all of us.”

New law enforcement tools aren’t the only controversial change in April’s Digital Economy Bill. Webpages hosting pornography and other adult content now must verify the age of visitors, and face a stiff fine and a block at the Internet Service Provider (ISP) level if they don’t. Digital piracy — i.e., illegally distribution of movies, music, and other media — is punishable by up to ten years in prison instead of the previous two. And public service broadcasters like the BBC are now allowed to charge re-transmission fees.

The new laws contain quite a few more notable provisions. Mobile phone contracts are now capped, and carriers have to warn customers when they enter a per-month contract. Ticket resellers and scalpers who use automated bots to buy tickets are subject to a stiff fine. And government departments can now share basic personal information for “research,” “statistical purposes,” and “fraud detection.”