31 October 2022: Institute of Race Relations: From GPS tagging to facial recognition watches: expanding the surveillance of migrants in the UK
Written by Lucie Audibert (Lawyer and Legal Officer, Privacy International) & Monish Bhatia (Lecturer in Criminology, Birkbeck, University of London)
Through its use of GPS tags and smartwatches in immigration enforcement, the UK is extending the reach of surveillance and control of migrants to frightening levels.
In early August, we learned that the Ministry of Justice had awarded a £6m contract for ‘facial recognition smartwatches’ to be worn by foreign national offenders. The devices will track their GPS location 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and will require them to scan their faces up to five times a day. The information obtained from the devices, including names, date of birth, nationality, photographs, and location data, will be stored for up to six years and may be accessed by the Home Office and shared with law and border enforcement agencies.
This is just the latest intrusive electronic monitoring (EM) technology to be used on migrants, after the Home Office moved from ‘traditional’ radio frequency tags (which measure the distance between the tag and the subject’s home) to GPS tags (which monitor the subject’s precise location 24/7). Electronic monitoring has been a key part of criminal justice for many years throughout the world, operational in many US states since the 1980s and implemented in England and Wales under the Criminal Justice Act 1991. It was introduced to address prison overcrowding and the rising costs of incarceration by diverting offenders from custody, but it is doubtful whether EM actually shrinks the size of prison populations or simply expands criminal justice interventions through a ‘net-widening effect’ – a 2016 comparative study found that high use of imprisonment is linked to high use of EM.[i] England and Wales now has the highest number of offenders subjected to this technology in the world,[ii] and has extended its use to immigration enforcement, through the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc) Act 2004. (In the US, it was extended to immigration control in about 2002.) As far as we know, Britain is the only state in Europe to use EM in the migration arena.
Calls for GPS tagging to be abolished as report finds people left suicidal and stigmatised by the practice
Lawyers and charities have called for controversial electronic tagging of migrants to be scrapped, describing it in a new report as a form of “psychological torture”.
Tagging of people in the criminal justice system has been in place for years but it was only since August 2021 that a duty to monitor those on immigration bail facing deportation was introduced. GPS tagging, a more invasive form that can track people’s every move including where they shop, worship and who they spend time with, was introduced in January.
The new report – Every Move You Make: the human cost of GPS tagging in the immigration system – raises concerns such as:
· GPS tagging is causing serious damage to people’s mental and physical health. They feel stigmatised by having a large, heavy tag strapped to their ankles and the tags can exacerbate skin conditions such as eczema.Advertisement
· It is a form of invasive surveillance of people’s lives which goes beyond the needs of the Home Office to check that people are complying with bail conditions. Wearers fear behaviour linked to their immigration claims is also being monitored, such as the amount of time they spend with their children.
· The tags do not always work properly and as well as being large and cumbersome to wear can take up to four hours each day to charge. They cannot be removed from people’s ankles while being charged. Home Office sources say those tagged are given a helpline number to resolve any problems with the tags.
The research – from the charities Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID) and Medical Justice and the Public Law Project – is the first time that the human cost of this new form of tagging has been assessed.
“Tagging needs to be completely abolished. People must not be subjected to perpetual degrading, dehumanising and coercive surveillance measures,” it states.