In recent months, the British government’s war on refugees has included a relentless deluge of vicious xenophobic rhetoric from ministers and human rights-busting, UN-condemned legislation in the form of the Illegal Migration Bill, and is seemingly intensifying with each passing day.
Despite backlash from the public and certain sections of the media, this virulent animus enjoys bipartisan support and is likely to be a key battleground in the next general election. The Conservatives and Labour are already vying to prove which can be more efficiently barbaric and prevent the most refugees from reaching British soil. In the meantime, migrants attempting to cross the English Channel routinely die en route.
MintPress News can exclusively reveal a hitherto clandestine dimension of London’s horrific abuse of refugees. The Home Office is spying on their smartphones and movements, hoping they will lead authorities to people smugglers and “organized crime groups.”
Britain’s unwitting, non-consensual recruitment of refugees as living tracking devices is conducted in deliberate breach of national and international data protection regulations. It may also contravene the European Convention on Human Rights.
Precisely when and how the Home Office struck upon this monstrous stratagem isn’t clear. However, leaked documents reviewed by MintPress News indicate a trial scheme, dubbed “Project INVICTUS,” was launched in November 2021. The private military intelligence company Prevail Partners led the effort on behalf of Clandestine Channel Threat Command, a Home Office unit that “brings together the whole of Government to end the viability of the small boat route.”
An “initial impressions report” on “major themes” of this trial, authored a month later by Prevail, lays out its dimensions. First, the need for paramount confidentiality at all times was writ large:
Operationally, the capability sought to provide information start points to the [Home Office] Intelligence Fusion Cell (IFC), complementing other forms of open-source data. The concept of the trial envisaged a series of passive data collection ‘gates’ deployed overseas in Belgium (Operation TARTAN) and domestically in the UK, harvesting anonymised WIFI-based data from devices associated to illegal migration and OCG [organized crime group] facilitators.”
These “gates” would effectively ‘bug’ the electronic devices of anyone who passed through. This “technical data collection capability” was supplied by Precog Systems, which bills itself as “the world’s leading crime intelligence system.” Throughout the trial, Prevail engaged with the firm “to deploy the collection units, monitor, process and analyze the data and troubleshoot issues.”
Together, they constructed “collection units” in three migrant detention and processing centers in South East England; Manson, Tug Haven, and Western Jet Foil. They also traveled to Belgium to install units and liaise with local authorities on the project.
However, Prevail was not impressed with the performance of Precog Systems, noting “significant limitations were evident throughout the entire INVICTUS ecosystem: in the hardware; the operational roll-out; GDPR data compliance authorities; UKK prevailing permissions framework; and the commercial maturity of the data hardware supplier.”
Combined, these factors meant an extremely “low level of useful intelligence dividend” was produced by the trial. What data was collected was “of either questionable accuracy or only available with conflicting information, rendering it unusable.” In all, less than 0.001% of the yield “delivered any operational insight,” and that was after it was subject to a “significant amount of data processing.”
The “hardware” provided by Precog Systems was designed to identify and then capture targets “[loitering] near the collection units, predominantly within established infrastructure and major transport hubs.” In practice, it was so unreliable Precog Systems engineers were frequently required to talk through “complicated restart processes” with on-site Border Force employees, “which risked the capability being compromised.”
Moreover, some of the units deployed in Belgium were intended to harvest data from individuals traveling in “fast moving vehicles on major roads.” Yet, as they were “reliant on a constant power supply, do not have an external antenna and are not ruggedised,” opportunities to deploy the technology were limited.
In sum, Prevail slammed Precog Systems as “commercially immature” and “[lacking] the operational tempo required.” It also noted that the firm’s data sharing and handling procedures were “insecure,” with Prevail initially being given access to all the company’s proprietary data, meaning it could see the sensitive intelligence being simultaneously vacuumed for all other Precog clients.
“It is not recommended that any further activity is conducted with Precog on this capability,” Prevail concluded.
‘INDISCRIMINATE, PASSIVE COLLECTION’
Still, all was not lost from Prevail’s perspective. The company declared “the concept of data collection systems remains valid” in respect of refugees and suggested that the Home Office maintain this spying capability by bringing it “in house,” providing “improved control over the process and greater operational security.” But, as we shall see, this was a cynical euphemism for outsourcing the work directly to Prevail.
Prevail’s “tradecraft and operational experience” would “inform the design and deployment of collection units to maximise collection.” Multiple units would be deployed “along suspected routes,” and “ruggedised units that would allow for maritime collection,” suggesting the firm foresaw planting spy technology at sea to identify refugees and people smugglers as they desperately crossed from mainland Europe to Britain. “Partner agencies at migrant processing centres” would also be advised “on tactics, techniques, and procedures to ensure effective collection.”
Moreover, Prevail urged the Home Office to be malleable around data handling, as “increased permissions” would make it possible to “conduct link analysis of selectors that are co-located with suspected migrants or OCG facilitators.” Finally, the company cautioned that “the legal framework and risk appetite” around any refugee surveillance effort would be crucial to its “success.”
The “full potential” could, Prevail declared, only be harnessed via a “GDPR exemption of some kind, as it is indiscriminate, passive collection against the general population.” By collecting targets’ Media Access Control (MAC) addresses, the company would be able to follow a “breadcrumb trail” of residual data they left while traveling through North West Europe.
This was achievable by conducting a “war drive” along those routes – identifying every vulnerable wireless network in these areas using a moving vehicle. Prevail noted such activity “would breach current permissions.” Indeed, the entire conspiracy constitutes an extraordinary infringement of British and European data protection standards and laws.
For example, GDPR, the European Union’s “general data protection regulation,” to which Britain remains a signatory despite leaving the bloc, imposes strict rules on data processors and offers significant protections to individuals whose data is processed. This includes the need for their “clear consent” when doing so and the right for individuals “to object” to their data being processed in the first place, including “for the purposes of profiling.”
There is also the question of Article 8 of the ECHR, “the right to respect for private and family life, home and correspondence.” In September 2018, the European Court of Human Rights found that British signals intelligence agency GCHQ’s bulk interception methods violated personal privacy and lacked sufficient safeguards. This ruling was reinforced three years later, with judges ruling that these activities violated freedom of expression.
Prevail openly asked for its work to be granted a dedicated “exemption” to circumvent GDPR, and there are obvious parallels in its covert activities with GCHQ bulk collection. The Home Office’s spying on refugees was already, per Prevail, “indiscriminate, passive collection against the general population” and conducted without the public’s knowledge or consent before even being “fit for purpose.”
‘PREDICTIVE INTELLIGENCE ASSESSMENTS’
For the diabolical scheme to work effectively and glean insights from more than 0.001% of the total data harvested, the Home Office needed to be far more targeted in its approach. Anomaly 6, a shadowy private spying firm founded by U.S. military intelligence veterans, fulfilled this need.
Based in Fairfax, Virginia, near CIA headquarters, Anomaly 6’s spectral stock-in-trade is embedding software development kits, or SDKs, in scores of popular smartphone and Internet-of-Things apps. This allows the firm to track the movements of any individual user on Earth in real-time, then carve through layers of “anonymized” data to uncover a troubling array of sensitive information about the device owner in question. Its intrusive reach could exceed even that of GCHQ and the NSA.
A week after the withering assessment of Precog Systems’ efforts was authored, Prevail produced an update on the reach and capabilities of its in-house intelligence software CEREBRO, now augmented with Anomaly 6’s own technology.
The company boasted of its ability to fuse intelligence on the movements of migrants and organized criminal groups with “research and analysis of human behaviors” to “deliver predictive intelligence assessments of the next small boat crossing attempt,” preventing them in advance. The Home Office needed these forecasts to be “as close to real time as is possible” and “geographically accurate” within a 100-meter radius.
A detailed map of 19 separate “named areas of interest” was provided, common refugee crossing points on North West Europe’s coastline, stretching from Le Crotoy, France, to Nieuwpoort, Belgium. The nationalities of those crossing, “in priority order,” were also supplied – Iranian Kurd, Iraqi Kurd, Iraqi Arab, Syrian Kurd, Eritrean, Vietnamese, Afghan, Sudanese, and Albanian. Prevail had even pinpointed the “specific apps” used by migrants traveling on particular routes and monitored their movements accordingly. Evidently, Anomaly 6 had delivered.
‘LOW RISK THRESHOLD’
Anomaly 6’s spying services are illegal under multiple national and international data protection regimes. However, from Prevail’s perspective, this was no deterrent to employing the firm’s services for the Home Office’s refugee spying scheme. Senior Anomaly 6 staffers themselves were, by contrast, extremely uneasy about their involvement, given the risk of public exposure.
These anxieties persisted into May 2022, when the company’s representatives met with senior Prevail staffers. Minutes of their rendezvous indicate “A6 expressed significant concerns around GDPR compliance.” Primarily, the company worried “they would receive a Data Subject Access Request (DSAR),” which would unravel the entire operation and “potentially lead to legal action being brought by the Information Commissioners Office (ICO) of a European country.”
Anomaly 6 declared that “the legal basis under which they are processing European data is unlikely to stand up to scrutiny,” an assessment its lawyers had determined to be “supported by case law.” Moreover, their “low-risk threshold in this area” was “exacerbated by their recent media profile,” a reference to contemporary reports in The Intercept that exposed how Anomaly 6 marketed its surveillance prowess to a potential client by spying on the smartphones of CIA and NSA operatives.
To ease Anomaly 6’s consternation, Prevail pledged to seek legal advice on regulatory fudges and sleights of hand that would provide a statutory basis for surreptitiously processing personal data and ensuring this activity was defensible in a European court if need be. Prevail again referenced securing a government exemption to GDPR rules to allow the scheme to proceed.
Legal quibbles aside, Prevail was, by and large impressed with Anomaly 6’s “successes” to date. Nonetheless, the Home Office reportedly remained “very concerned about latency and specifically the ability to offer NRT [near-real-time] alerts of target movement.” Improving this capability to “enable better target penetration” was to be Anomaly 6’s “top priority” moving forward.
It was the elite international law firm Cooley LLP that was contracted by Prevail to effectively legalize the connivance. Its solution was a circuitous wriggle – brokers from which Anomaly 6 purchased data are designated “separate controllers” of that data. Anomaly 6 is simply a processor, passing the proceeds to Prevail and then the Home Office. This theoretically allows Anomaly 6, Prevail, and the Home Office to claim in court the brokers are exclusively responsible for complying with GDPR obligations.
Such a workaround would be convenient in legally justifying spying not just on refugees and organized crime groups attempting to enter Britain but also on the country’s citizens and populations of all countries in London’s security, intelligence, and military crosshairs.
Other leaked documents reviewed by MintPress News indicate that under the terms of a contract drafted in December 2021, Prevail was granted “exclusive rights to market and sell” Anomaly 6’s technology to Britain’s entire national security apparatus, including GCHQ, MI5, and MI6. It also reserved these rights in Argentina, Australia, Denmark, Malta, and the United Arab Emirates. This journalist has previously exposed how London’s DIA, and Kiev’s SBU, are using the tech in the Ukraine proxy war.
If buy-in had been secured from even one of those prospective clients in the months since, the sensitive personal information of billions could have been exploited for various malicious purposes. Other leaked Anomaly 6 files openly discuss how its offering is ripe for “counterintelligence” and “source development” purposes. In other words, every citizen on Earth can be transformed into a “person of interest” to spying agencies, the most intimate details of their private lives up for auction.
To paraphrase Scottish author Neal Ascherson: how a government treats refugees is very instructive because it shows how they would treat the rest of us if they thought they could get away with it.
Feature photo | Illustration by MintPress News
Kit Klarenberg is an investigative journalist and MintPresss News contributor exploring the role of intelligence services in shaping politics and perceptions. His work has previously appeared in The Cradle, DeclassifiedUKK, and Grayzone. Follow him on Twitter @KitKlarenberg.