People who are subject to deportation orders in the UK will soon be required to carry a GPS-enabled fingerprint scanner at all times, so that their location and identity can be verified New Scientist has learned. Privacy campaigners say the devices are a form of unnecessary biometric surveillance that could exacerbate people’s mental health problems.
The UK began using GPS-enabled ankle tags to track adult foreign-national offenders who are subject to deportation orders in August 2021. People in this position, also known as immigration bail, aren’t UK citizens and have committed a crime that resulted in a custodial sentence of more than 12 months or are considered to be “persistent offenders”. According to the most recent data, as of 30 September, 2146 people were being monitored in this way.
The new devices, which resemble a large key fob and are produced by Buddi, will be given to people on immigration bail soon, the Home Office has confirmed. They will track an individual’s location 24 hours a day. Lucie Audibert at Privacy International says the charity understands that the devices will be rolled out this autumn.
Users of the device will have to scan their fingers when prompted, to confirm their identity and proximity to the device. The Home Office wouldn’t say how often this will be required and hasn’t said explicitly why the fingerprint scanners will be better than ankle tags.
In a report produced by Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration earlier this year, Home Office officials said that such devices may be used to monitor people with “vulnerabilities” that prevent them from wearing an ankle tag or those who are “considered lower harm” to the public.
But these new devices are just as intrusive as ankle tags, says Audibert. “People will still have their location tracked 24/7 and further anxiety may come from being unable to submit your fingerprint scan for one reason or another.”
“It may also feed into the normalization of GPS tracking as it becomes physically and morally more tolerable and acceptable to wear this new device than an ankle tag that is loaded with stigma,” she says.
Fraser Sampson, the UK’s biometrics and surveillance camera commissioner, whose job is to ensure fingerprint data used by the police complies with the government’s code of practice, says he had no idea that the Home Office was going to bring in these devices.
“Increasingly, there are other agencies using biometrics that aren’t the police,” he says. “The government does not regard this as falling within my remit.”
“It doesn’t come under the surveillance camera code and therefore the only thing that is left to comply with is the general law of the land, and specifically data protection laws,” he says. The Home Office says its use of data gathered from these devices will comply with these laws.
A lawyer who has represented several clients who have been required to wear GPS ankle tags and wishes to remain anonymous says the safeguards in place to protect vulnerable people aren’t good enough.
Many people who are subject to deportation orders experience post-traumatic stress disorder, says the lawyer, and so 24-hour GPS monitoring may exacerbate their condition. They say the Home Office only provides lawyers and their clients a few days to gather the medical evidence required to argue against the use of GPS tags before they are fitted. The Home Office says it follows published bail guidance on representations from individuals.
“We’ve had several cases where we’ve got evidence showing that GPS tags are exacerbating trauma for very vulnerable individuals,” says the lawyer. Only after several weeks of back and forth will the Home Office back down from their initial judgement to tag someone, they add.
“The public rightly expects us to carry out our legal duty to electronically monitor any foreign criminals released on immigration bail whilst awaiting deportation,” a Home Office spokesperson says. “A decision to tag is taken on a case-by-case basis and a combination of fitted and non-fitted devices is used.”
Buddi declined to comment.
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