With Prevent, Tories go after digital rights and Palestine

How the revamped Prevent could pre-criminalise Palestine solidarity
6 min read

Sophia Akram

29 February, 2024
With access to personal data and no oversight, Prevent is targeting Muslims opposing Israel's war on Gaza, with lifelong consequences, writes Sophia Akram.
Since the start of Israel's war on Gaza, there has been an increase in the number of Prevent referrals. [Getty]

It’s been a demoralising week in the UK as Islamophobic rhetoric among its political elites reaches new heights.

According to former home secretary Suella Braverman and Conservative MP Lee Anderson, Islamists are apparently running the country, the capital and its mayor – and by Islamists, they mean those protesting Israel’s war on Gaza.

“The Islamists, the extremists and the anti-Semites are in charge now,” wrote Braverman in an op-ed for the Telegraph titled, “Islamists are bullying Britain into submission”.

This ‘threat’ that these protests pose was used as justification for the chaotic scenes in Westminster preceding the Scottish National Party’s proposed vote on a Gaza ceasefire.

Adding to the pile on, William Shawcross, appointed as the Independent Reviewer of Prevent – the government’s controversial counter-terrorism policy – weighed in after the government reported on the progress it had made on his recommendations, saying there was not enough being done about “Hamas people” in the UK.

There’s plenty that could be said about how pro-Palestine solidarity and support for Hamas are wrongly conflated and politicised.

Right now, it’s important to know that the government, through its statement on Prevent and the education secretary’s letters to schools and universities, are asking for more attention to institutions’ duties under Prevent, nodding to people’s sentiments following the latest Gaza war.

The Prevent Duty is mandated under the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, obligating teachers, social workers, health professionals and many others in positions of trust to report individuals they believe are vulnerable to radicalisation. The idea is that identifying such individuals would reduce the threat of terrorism.

Frivolous referrals are well-documented, and when referred to the police, lead to “no further action.”

However, while teachers, social workers, and health workers are urged to err on the side of caution when reporting and recording concerns, a Prevent referral is no casual action – it could have a lasting impact on the person being referred.

A report published by Open Rights Group last week showed how personal data processing under Prevent can harm individuals, iterating what case workers and watchdog Prevent Watch have been sounding the alarm about for years. 

Prevent can go through two pathways. The policy aims to identify vulnerable individuals and then offer interventions to “deradicalise” them, a programme known as Channel, led by the local authority involving many different bodies. It could also go through a police-led process if the referee refuses an intervention or it is inappropriate for the Channel programme.

Freedom of information disclosures exposed that some of those referrals could be shared with other bodies or mechanisms that can potentially lead to disruption in a person’s life, such as the Ports Authority Watchlist or immigration services and the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office.

However, even if a referral doesn’t warrant going through either route and requires no further action, the data can still be held for a minimum of six years, subject to review, potentially for the remainder of their life, just in case they “reoffend” – even though no offence has actually taken place.

As Prevent and the data processing under it does not rely on consent, referees may not know they have been referred, only finding out if social services visit them or if a school or college raises concerns or withdraws an offer, as shown by the case studies in the report.

Referral data can be wide-ranging and intrusive, including health data, information about relatives, religious and political beliefs, ethnic origin and online activity. And there have been numerous cases of the latter leading to a Prevent referral.

Take the case of Noah in the report, whose fascination with the Middle East and militarism online led to a Prevent referral being stored even though it was concluded it was no more than childlike curiosity.

In a recent report by Amnesty International, Aran’s story involves a Prevent referral based on his social media posts about anti-capitalism, anti-racism, international solidarity and trade union activism. According to the case study, those posts alone demonstrated he wanted to abolish the British state.

Since the Hamas attack of 7 October and the ensuing Israeli war on Gaza, there has been a reported uptick in the number of Prevent referrals. 

The government’s nod towards Prevent could be more than just words. And the potential reach of who can be targeted appears to have no visible parameters or oversight.

Not only have there been hundreds of thousands of people in the streets protesting about the war in Gaza but so many of us are online now doing whatever is in our power to raise awareness and keep the conversation going.

Yet, these small acts of protest - protected by the UN Declaration of Human Rights - could, in theory, lead to a Prevent referral.

This digital and decentralised element of policing is not new – the rights group Defend Digital Me previously reported that Edtech is being used for Prevent with software on children’s devices filtering keywords that could arbitrarily indicate a Prevent referral.

We’ve also seen this type of policing in the supposed war on gangs, with social media monitoring flagging content, including music, as indicators of a propensity to violence.

If the picture looks bleak, it will only get worse.

The Online Safety Act, which received Royal Assent in October 2023, means there is more onus on online platforms to police activity that might lead to terrorist activity; that could mean algorithms flag and remove plenty of content that has no such ill intent – pro-Palestinian solidarity included.

While individuals might not know if they have a Prevent referral, finding out could get harder as the proposed Data Protection and Digital Information Bill will see that the rights to access personal information are watered down.

When narratives are now trying to label activists as “extreme,” “radical” or “Islamist,” we have to be extra vigilant and ensure that standing with Palestine and speaking out against racism and oppression does not mean that someone is marked for life.

Sophia Akram is a researcher and communications professional with a special interest in human rights, particularly across the Middle East.

Follow her on Twitter: @mssophiaakram

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@newarab.com

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff, or the author's employer.

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