Home Office ups migrant surveillance with facial recognition smartwatches


The UK Home Office plans to use smartwatches and facial recognition technology to track the whereabouts of people who are “subject to immigration control”, according to documents seen by privacy campaigners. Privacy International, the Open Rights Group and Liberty say the plans constitute a breach of privacy and warn that human rights abuses could follow.

It is the latest attempt by the Home Office to use technology to control immigration. Earlier this year, Tech Monitor reported that the UK government has spent up to £1bn on surveillance technology, including drones, to track migrants crossing the English channel.

Critics argue that the Home Office’s objective in implementing these surveillance technologies is to create a “hostile environment” for migrants.

The UK Home Office is planning to use surveillance technology to monitor migrants through smartwatches. (Photo by Edwin Tan /iStock)

A data protection impact assessment (DPIA) conducted by the Home Office in August 2021 discussed plans to use smartwatches and facial recognition to track the whereabouts of individuals who are “subject to immigration control”. According to The Guardian, individuals will be required either to wear an electronic ankle tag or submit to facial recognition checks on a smartwatch five times a day.

Privacy International, which acquired the DPIA through an FOI request, also found a £6m contract for wearable device maker Buddi to provide the Ministry of Justice with a ‘non-fitted device’ solution. The contract describes using smartwatches as a “proportionate way of monitoring specific cohorts” over extended periods and an alternative to fitted ankle tags.

Buddi, which also makes wearable devices for vulnerable people, was co-founded by Sara Murray OBE, who also founded price comparison website Confused.com and sat on the UK government’s Technology Strategy Board (now Innovate UK) until 2015. (Buddi declined the opportunity to comment for this article.)

Facial recognition ‘discriminatory and oppressive’

Privacy organisations such as Liberty, Open Rights Group and Privacy International have expressed their concerns about the use of facial recognition technology for migrant migrants.

Sam Grant, head of policy and campaigns at Liberty, told Tech Monitor that everyone should be able to “walk our streets” without the threat of being watched, tracked and monitored, adding that facial recognition technology is a “discriminatory and oppressive surveillance tool”.

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“Just two years ago in our landmark legal case, the courts agreed that this technology violates our rights and threatens our liberties,” he told Tech Monitor. “This expansion of mass surveillance tools has no place on the streets of a rights-respecting democracy.”

Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, added that “abuses will inevitably follow” with the use of facial recognition to track migrants.

“The fact that facial recognition technologies are frequently discriminatory and inaccurate, alongside the hostility to human rights from this government, should make us extremely concerned,” he said. “Abuses will inevitably follow, such as claims that participants failed to comply when the technology and scheme itself are at fault.”

Home Office migrant surveillance: a “hostile environment”

The smartwatches are the latest initiative by the Home Office to use technology to track migrants. “In the past, they used what we call radio frequency tags, measuring the distance between a base station in the subject’s home and the tag attached to their ankle,” Lucie Audibert, lawyer and legal officer at Privacy International, told Tech Monitor. “Then the Ministry of Justice acquired new technology in the shape of GPS tags and started rolling out them out as well.”

GPS tags can reveal intimate details of an individual’s life, Privacy International, argues, and despite the “indiscriminate mass nature of this surveillance”, there is no provision for judicial or independent oversight of their application. The use of GPS tags is disproportionate, the group says, as only 1% of people released from immigration detention try to abscond.

Privacy International views these surveillance technologies as a continuation of the “hostile environment” policy introduced in 2013 by then-Home Secretary Theresa May to discourage immigration.

Earlier this year, Tech Monitor reported that the Home Office had spent up to £1bn on surveillance technology, including drones, to track migrants as they cross the English channel.

This technology is not a cost-effective way to manage migration, said Dr Leonie Ansems de Vries, chair of the Migration Research Group at King’s College London, at the time, but is intended as a deterrent.

“The overall vision and narrative of the Home Office in recent years has been focused on keeping people out, rather than providing safe and legal routes which would be a lot cheaper and safer,” she explained. “So there’s a desire to continue investing in surveillance technologies and other possible policies like offshore detention centres for example, even if it makes no sense from an economic perspective.”

Read more: The UK has spent up to £1bn on drones to prevent migrant crossings


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