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Migrants convicted of a crime could be subject to facial recognition scans up to five times a day under plans drawn up by the Home Office, which campaigners and experts have condemned as “racial surveillance”.
According to a Home Office data protection impact assessment (DPIA) from August 2021 – which was obtained by campaign group Privacy International via a freedom of information (FOI) request and subsequently shared with The Guardian – the scheme will involve “daily monitoring of individuals subject to immigration control”, with a requirement to wear either a fitted ankle tag or a facial recognition-enabled smartwatch at all times.
Privacy International also identified a government contract for the electronic monitoring and biometric identification of “specific cohorts” as part of the Home Office Satellite Tracking Service, which was awarded to wearable device maker Buddi in May 2022.
While the contract was tendered by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), a spokesperson told Computer Weekly that, because it already tags offenders and has the systems in place, the contract was put out by the MoJ on behalf of the Home Office, but beyond this, the policy has nothing to do with the MoJ.
The DPIA said migrants subject to wearing the smartwatches will be forced to submit photos using its camera up to five times a day, with their images cross-referenced against biometric facial information held by the Home Office. If the image verification fails, a check will be performed manually.
Computer Weekly asked the Home Office what the manual verification process would entail, but received no response by time of publication.
It further added that locations would be tracked “24/7, allowing trail monitoring data to be recorded”, and that a range of information – including their names, date of birth, nationality and photographs – would be stored for up to six years. The data will be shared between the Home Office, MoJ and police.
Set to be introduced across the UK in autumn, the Home Office scheme will have an initial cost of £6m, although the number of devices to be produced and the cost of each smartwatch was redacted in the contract.
A separate Home Office contract worth £150,000, titled Proc764 Migrant Tracker, was also awarded to The Barcode Warehouse in July 2022, for “the provision of barcoded wristbands and corresponding scanning equipment, in addition to asset-tracking software”.
Computer Weekly asked the Home Office about the contract, and whether it was part of the same policy to electronically monitor migrants, but received no response by time of publication. Computer Weekly also asked The Barcode Warehouse, but similarly received no response.
The Home Offices has said the smartwatch scheme will only apply to “foreign national” offenders who have been convicted of a crime, not to any other migrants, and that the “portable biometrically accessed device” was being introduced to complement the existing use of ankle tags.
In a statement given to The Guardian, it added: “The public expects us to monitor convicted foreign-national offenders and to suggest this contract applies to asylum seekers who have arrived via illegal means is simply wrong. Since August 2021, the Home Office has successfully tagged over 2,500 foreign criminals, reassuring victims that their perpetrators cannot escape the law and will be removed from the UK at the earliest opportunity.
“Since January 2019, the government has removed over 10,000 foreign criminals. Foreign criminals should be in no doubt of our determination to deport them and the government is doing everything possible to increase the number of foreign national offenders being deported.”
However, Monish Bhatia, a lecturer in criminology at Birkbeck, University of London, noted on Twitter that the Home Office’s monitoring policy – which he described as “racial surveillance” – was aimed at people who have already completed their sentences and been released back into the community.
“First and foremost, *people* who are getting tagged have *completed* their punishment. They are tagged by the immigration system as an administrative measure,” he said, adding that his own research into the effects of electronically monitoring migrants has shown that some participants developed symptoms of anxiety, depression and suicide ideation.
“It is an intrusive technology of control with detrimental impact on migrant health and well-being. The Home Office have not provided any evidence to show why electronic monitoring is necessary or demonstrated that tags make individuals comply with immigration rules better. What we need is humane, non-degrading, non-punitive, community-based solutions.”
Computer Weekly asked the Home Office for its rationale behind tracking people who have already been convicted and served punishment, as well as if it could provide any evidence about the necessity of the monitoring, but received no response.
Lucie Audibert, a lawyer and legal officer for Privacy International, said: “Facial recognition is known to be an imperfect and dangerous technology that tends to discriminate against people of colour and marginalised communities. These ‘innovations’ in policing and surveillance are often driven by private companies, which profit from governments’ race towards total surveillance and control of populations.
“Through their opaque technologies and algorithms, they facilitate government discrimination and human rights abuses without any accountability. No other country in Europe has deployed this dehumanising and invasive technology against migrants.”
According to Sam Grant, head of policy and campaigns at human rights group Liberty, facial recognition is a “discriminatory and oppressive” surveillance tool that instead of making people safer, only further entrenches patterns of discrimination.
“The use of surveillance technology impacts us all but will always have a greater impact on marginalised groups. It is no surprise then that this government would deploy facial recognition as part of its racist hostile environment,” he said.
“The government is intent on wrecking privacy rights and monitoring us, as well as ripping up protections for refugees. Alongside the government’s new anti-refugee law and this plan to monitor migrants 24/7, the Met Police is ramping up its use of live facial recognition in crowded public spaces, and the Public Order Bill will introduce protest banning orders which can require protesters to be tagged.
“It is impossible to regulate for the dangers created by a technology that is oppressive by design.”
In February 2021, Privacy International published a report on The UK’s privatised migration surveillance regime, which stated that the close-knit relationship between immigration authorities and the technology sector meant “UK authorities are able to call on intrusive surveillance powers matching those of anyone else in the world”.
It also noted that the private technology firms involved in developing and maintaining a range of digital surveillance tools for the UK’s immigration authorities were rarely scrutinised or held accountable for their involvement in the border regime.
Computer Weekly contacted Buddi about its involvement in the Home Office plans to conduct biometric scans of convicted migrants faces, but received no response by time of publication.
In March 2022, the UK government also came under fire from lawyers, human rights groups and migrant support organisations for spending tens of millions of pounds on border surveillance technologies to deter and help punish migrants crossing the English Channel, rather than using those same resources to provide safe, legal routes into the country.