Facial recognition smartwatches to be used to monitor foreign offenders in UK | Home Office

Migrants who have been convicted of a criminal offense will be required to scan their faces up to five times a day using smartwatches installed with facial recognition technology under plans from the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice.

In May, the government awarded a contract to the British technology company Buddi Limited to deliver “non-fitted devices” to monitor “specific cohorts” as part of the Home Office Satellite Tracking Service. The scheme is due to be introduced from the autumn across the UK, at an initial cost of £6m.

A Home Office data protection impact assessment (DPIA) from August 2021, obtained by the charity Privacy International through a freedom of information request, assessed the impact of the smartwatch technology before contracting a supplier. In the documents, seen by the Guardian, the Home Office says the scheme will involve “daily monitoring of individuals subject to immigration control”, with the requirement to wear either a fitted ankle tag or a smartwatch, carried with them at all times.

Those obliged to wear the devices will need to complete periodic monitoring checks throughout the day by taking a photograph of themselves on a smartwatch, with information including their names, date of birth, nationality and photographs stored for up to six years. Locations will be tracked “24/7, allowing trail monitoring data to be recorded”.

Photographs taken using the smartwatches will be cross-checked against biometric facial images on Home Office systems and if the image verification fails, a check must be performed manually.

The data will be shared with the Home Office, 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 was redacted in the contract and there is no mention of risk assessments to determine whether it is appropriate to monitor vulnerable or at-risk asylum seekers.

The Home Office says the smartwatch scheme will be for foreign-national offenders who have been convicted of a criminal offence, rather than other groups, such as asylum seekers.

However, it is expected that those obliged to wear the smartwatches will be subject to similar conditions to those fitted with GPS ankle tags, with references in the DPIA to curfews and inclusion and exclusion zones.

In a National Audit Office report in June, the government said it “regards electronic monitoring as a cost-effective alternative to custody, which contributes to its goals to protect the public and reduce reoffending”.

Campaigners say 24-hour surveillance of asylum seekers breaches human rights, and may have a detrimental impact on migrants’ health and well-being.

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 color and marginalized communities. These ‘innovations’ in policing and surveillance are often driven by private companies, who 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.”

Dr Monish Bhatia, a lecturer in criminology at Birkbeck, University of London, said: “Electronic monitoring is an intrusive technology of control. Some individuals develop symptoms of anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation and overall deterioration of mental health.

“The Home Office is still not clear how long individuals will remain on monitoring. They 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, community-based solutions.”

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A Home Office spokesperson said a “portable biometrically accessed device” would soon be introduced to complement the existing fitted device, or ankle tag.

“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.”

Buddi Limited have been approached for a comment.

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