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Surveillance watchdog Privacy International files complaints over UK's GPS-tracking of migrants

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By Sophia Khatsenkova
People thought to be migrants are brought in to Dover, Kent, England, following a small boat incident in the Channel, Monday July 11, 2022
People thought to be migrants are brought in to Dover, Kent, England, following a small boat incident in the Channel, Monday July 11, 2022   -   Copyright  Credit: AP/Gareth Fuller/PA

Privacy International, an anti-surveillance watchdog, has filed two complaints with UK regulators against the Home Office's new scheme of GPS tracking of migrants. 

Since June, the UK Home Office began using GPS ankle bracelets on asylum seekers. 

These tags track migrants’ movements 24/7 for an unlimited amount of time while they wait for a decision on their immigration status.

Privacy International argues that this practice is inhumane and threatens data rights in the UK.

The group Privacy has filed a complaint with the Information Commissioner’s Office and the Forensic Science Regulator.

This one-year pilot programme concerns migrants that enter the UK through irregular routes such as, for example, via small boats through the English Channel.

The GPS devices are similar to the ones used in the justice system to monitor criminals.

The UK Home Office justified this scheme as an experiment to see whether this could stop certain migrants from disappearing as well as prevent abuse of the immigration system.

But according to a Freedom of Information request by Migrants Organise, these absconding rates were as low as 1% in 2020 and 3% in 2019.

According to Privacy International and other NGOs, this system faces multiple technological issues and could cause psychological harm for asylum seekers.

For example, the organisation has flagged the issue of the quality of the batteries of the ankle bracelets. 

"There's a huge problem with the battery life of these tags. People are having to plug themselves into a wall for hours on end. They fear leaving their house because it might run out of charge. If it does run out of charge, it's a breach of bail notification and they can be prosecuted," Camilla Graham-Wood, a sollicitor for Privacy International, told Euronews. 

In addition, constant surveillance can cause a lot of stress for many asylum seekers. 

"The tags are very big and heavy. It's difficult to play any sport or lead a normal life," said Graham-Wood. "It's not just the feeling of constant surveillance, it's the reality that you are constantly having everything you do tracked."

Privacy International also claims that the data location on these GPS devices is not accurate enough. 

This could result in some migrants being wrongfully accused of breaching their restrictions and facing prosecution.

For example, the watchdog says that these ankle bracelets do not work on the London Underground or in places with poor phone signal.

The Home Office plans to use individuals' GPS location data instead of evidence from third parties to inform decisions on their asylum and immigration applications.

But what most concerns Privacy International is that it is still unclear how this massive amount of very intimate and sensitive data on asylum seekers will be processed and used.

"This is a massive change in the surveillance of individuals in the UK... The Home Office also wants to process the data for behaviour analytics. There's a lot more going on than what the government is portraying the scheme in how exactly they want to use the data," said Camilla Graham-Wood. 

The UK has in recent years launched a massive programme of surveillance to try to discourage migrants from crossing the English Channel.