Privacy International files complaints against GPS tagging of migrants in the UK

Privacy International files complaints with two regulators against the UK Home Office's use of GPS ankle tags to monitor migrants, a seismic change in surveillance of individuals in the UK.

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Privacy International (PI) has today filed complaints with the Information Commissioner (ICO) and Forensic Science Regulator (FSR) against the UK Home Office's use of GPS ankle tags to monitor migrants released on immigration bail. This policy and practice represents a seismic change in the surveillance of migrants in the UK. PI was first alerted to this scheme by organisations such as Bail for Immigration Detainees, an independent charity that exists to challenge immigration detention in the UK.

What are GPS tags

GPS tags are ankle tags that monitor a subject’s precise location 24/7, generating a considerable volume of intimate and granular “trail data”. Trail data is processed and stored for years by Electronic Monitoring Services (EMS), currently run by Capita under a contract with the Ministry of Justice. The Home Office has granted itself broad and sweeping powers via its own policy to access an individual’s entire location history and share it with law enforcement - without sufficient safeguards and judicial oversight.

Data collected from GPS tags provides deep insight into and reveals intimate details of an individual’s life. This form of monitoring is a seismic change in the surveillance and data-intensive systems used against those subject to immigration control in the UK, causing tagged individuals feelings of anxiety, social exclusion, and sometimes causing re-traumatisation.

Read our tech primer on GPS tags.

What’s the problem

In a world of data-intensive systems, governments seek ever greater methods to gather, analyse, predict and share data of those who fall under their gaze. Electronic monitoring tags are just one more avenue for mass data collection.

It is mandatory, under Schedule 10 of the Immigration Act 2016, for Foreign National Offenders to be subject to Electronic Monitoring when released on immigration bail. However, anyone subject to immigration control, including asylum seekers in the course of their application or other proceedings, can be subject to GPS tagging. The government has also recently announced a 12-month pilot to test electronic monitoring on any asylum seekers who arrive in the UK by "unnecessary and dangerous routes". Neither the legislation nor policy documents provide for a time limit on how long an individual must wear a tag.

Despite the indiscriminate mass nature of this surveillance, there is no provision for judicial or independent oversight at the point where an electronic monitoring condition is imposed by the Home Office. The Home Office also plans on using individuals' GPS location data for a variety of purposes - of particular concern, to inform decisions on individuals’ asylum and immigration applications, stating that this will negate the need to request substantiating evidence from third parties.

Take a look at your location history over the last year, and see if you can account for it all. This is what migrants will face - life-changing and rights-impacting decisions made on the basis of unreliable data in which the Home Office will place a blind trust. In the words of Cardinal Richelieu, “If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.” This inevitably leads to a permanent anxiety of going places or making journeys that might later be judged as damaging to their immigration application - thereby further impacting their rights to free expression, movement, assembly and association.

“Over the last few months we have spoken to many people who have been forced to wear GPS-fitted ankle tags about the disastrous impact this has had on people’s mental and physical health, and family relationships. They report feeling depressed, ashamed and stigmatised and many have told us that they are being treated like animals.” said Rudy Schulkind, Research and Policy Co-ordinator at the charity Bail for Immigration Detainees. “Being forced to wear a GPS ankle tag structures the minute details of an individual’s life including the clothes they wear, the public places they go to, how they pray or exercise or care for their children. The experience of being constantly watched through 24/7 surveillance is particularly traumatising for people who are already particularly vulnerable including survivors of torture or modern slavery, and many of those we’ve spoken to have experienced a deterioration in their mental health as a result of this intrusive form of surveillance. The Home Office should put an end to this barbaric practice and start treating people with dignity and humanity.”

ICO complaint

PI’s complaint to the ICO argues that the Home Office’s GPS tagging scheme breaches data protection laws and violates individuals’ Article 8 right to privacy in a number of ways, and calls on the ICO to open an investigation.

Our complaint argues that the Home Office’s policy and practice breaches the UK GDPR and DPA 2018 in the following ways:

  • 24/7 GPS monitoring is excessive and goes beyond the aims of the legislation. It falls outside the reasonable expectations of data subjects.
  • The ability to review all trail data in the event of a breach of bail conditions alert is not necessary for nor proportionate to the purpose of data processing.
  • There is no lawful basis to use trail data to assess individuals’ Article 8 representations and further submissions.
  • No transparency is provided to data subjects as to the nature and extent of data collection and processing.
  • The various uses and re-uses of location data do not comply with the purpose limitation principle.
  • GPS location data can be inaccurate and quality failures can produce inaccurate data, in violation of the accuracy principle.
  • This form of surveillance poses a considerable risk to the fundamental rights and freedoms of tagged individuals.
  • The scheme lacks safeguards.

"The Home Office never runs out of egregious ideas for dehumanising, invasive, unnecessary and costly methods of surveillance and control of migrants" said Lucie Audibert, Legal Officer at PI. "Their disregard for data protection and human rights laws is shocking. It's time for regulators to use their investigatory and enforcement powers to put an end to this harmful policy, sadly just one of the myriad callous facets of the UK Hostile Environment."

FSR complaint

PI understands that its complaint to the Forensic Science Regular (FSR), newly emboldened with statutory powers of enforcement under the Forensic Science Act 2021, is the first of its kind.

In this complaint we are calling for an investigation into Home Office practices in the context of immigration and the systemic failures relating to the quality and accuracy of data extracted from GPS tags. We are concerned that there are numerous reports of tags failing to charge properly. This can be interpreted as a breach of immigration bail conditions and result in civil and criminal penalties.

A further significant issue of concern is the (in)accuracy of the location data produced by the tags. GPS location information may be accurate to a few meters in good conditions, but if the signal from one or more satellites bounces off a tall building, this can give rise to an error of 100m of more.

Camilla Graham Wood, Research Director at PI, states "It is unacceptable that as a result of quality failures, data extracted from GPS tags could lead to the loss of liberty and prosecution of an individual who has done nothing more than be forced to wear a tag that does not work as it should. As the Home Office continues to embrace data-intensive systems, we must not only question whether it is necessary and proportionate to gather such data, but also ensure the data itself is forensically sound. It is for these reasons that we urge the FSR to investigate."

PI's complaints follow critical reports from the National Audit Office (NAO) and Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI), which both found systemic failures in the Electronic Monitoring scheme.

We now call on the ICO and FSR to open investigations and scrutinise the Home Office Electronic Monitoring scheme and its compliance with laws and standards.