Migrants convicted of a crime will have to scan their faces up to five times a day with smartwatches installed with facial recognition technology, according to plans by the Home Office and Justice Department.
In May, the government awarded British tech company Buddi Limited a contract to supply “unmatched equipment” to monitor “certain cohorts” as part of the Home Office Satellite Tracking Service. The scheme is due to be rolled out across the UK from autumn and will initially cost £6million.
An August 2021 Home Office Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA), obtained through a Freedom of Information request from charity Privacy International, assessed the impact of smartwatch technology before engaging a supplier. In the documents seen by the Guardian, the Home Office says the scheme will “entail daily surveillance of people subject to immigration controls,” with a requirement to wear either a customized ankle tag or a smartwatch that they contribute at all times have to bear.
Those required to wear the devices must conduct regular surveillance checks throughout the day by taking a photo of themselves on a smartwatch, with information such as name, date of birth, nationality and photographs being retained for up to six years. Locations are tracked “24/7” allowing lane monitoring data to be recorded.
Photos taken with the smartwatches are matched against biometric facial images on home office systems, and if the image verification fails, a verification must be performed manually.
The data will be shared with the Home Office, the MoJ and the police, with Home Office officials adding: “The sharing of this data [to] Police colleagues is not new.”
The number of devices to be produced and the cost of each smartwatch have been redacted in the contract, and no mention is made of risk assessments to determine whether it is appropriate to monitor vulnerable or vulnerable asylum seekers.
The Home Office says the smartwatch program will apply to foreign offenders convicted of a crime, rather than other groups such as asylum seekers.
However, those who are required to wear the smartwatch are expected to be subject to similar conditions to those fitted with GPS ankle tags, with references in the DPIA to curfews and lock-in and lock-out zones.
In a June report by the National Audit Office, the government said it “views electronic surveillance as a cost-effective alternative to detention that contributes to its goals of protecting the public and reducing recidivism.”
Activists say 24-hour surveillance of asylum seekers violates human rights and can be detrimental to migrants’ health and well-being.
Lucie Audibert, Attorney and Legal Counsel at Privacy International, said: “Facial recognition is notoriously an imperfect and dangerous technology that tends to discriminate against people of color and marginalized communities. These “innovations” in policing and surveillance are often driven by private companies that profit from government races for total surveillance and control of the populace.
“Through their opaque technologies and algorithms, they facilitate state discrimination and human rights violations without any accountability. No other country in Europe has used this dehumanizing and invasive technology against migrants.”
dr Monish Bhatia, Lecturer in Criminology at Birkbeck University of London, said: “Electronic surveillance is an intrusive control technology. Some people develop symptoms of anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and general deterioration in mental health.
“The Home Office is still not clear how long individuals will be monitored. They have not presented any evidence as to why electronic surveillance is necessary or that tags help individuals improve immigration compliance. What we need are humane, non-degrading, community-based solutions.”
A Home Office spokesman said a “portable device with biometric access” would soon be introduced to complement the existing customized device or ankle tag.
“The public expects us to monitor convicted foreign criminals and to claim that this treaty applies to asylum seekers who have entered the country illegally is simply wrong. Since August 2021, the Home Office has successfully tagged over 2,500 foreign criminals, reassuring victims that their offenders cannot escape the law and will be deported from the UK at the earliest opportunity.
“Since January 2019, the government has deported over 10,000 foreign criminals. Foreign criminals should have no doubts about our determination to deport them, and the government is doing everything it can to increase the number of foreign criminals deported.”
Buddi Limited has been contacted for comment.