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Privacy International publishes results of its research into the databases and surveillance tools used by the UK borders, immigration, and citizenship system


Informative new report looks at the "vast yet highly opaque system upon which millions of people rely"

Date of Publication:
19 February 2021

Privacy International publishes results of its research into the databases and surveillance tools used by UK borders, immigration, and citizenship system

19 February 2021

The charity Privacy International, which works to promote the human right of privacy, last month published an interesting and informative new report on the databases and surveillance tools used by authorities across the UK's borders, immigration, and citizenship system.

CoverThe 48-page report can be downloaded here.

Privacy International explained: "we try to provide a rough guide to how the UK's borders, immigrations, and citizenship system tracks and spies on people, and which companies profit."

Privacy International said the report aims to increase the understanding of a vast yet highly opaque system upon which millions of people rely.

The first section of the report outlines the main departments and units involved, and it describes the various databases which are used to process immigration data and track people. Privacy International refers to them as the 'back-end' systems.

The key findings from the first section are as follows:

• The Home Office is currently developing several large IT systems which will be used to replace existing systems that track individuals throughout the borders, immigration, and customs system and enable the use of surveillance tools by relevant units and officers.

• Large tech and arms companies compete for supplying staff and vague services to the programme, but provide little insight as to what the firms are actually supposed to deliver.

• By converging facial, DNA, and fingerprint data into a single platform, biometric data will be more easily available to more agencies.

The second section of the report describes the "front-end" tools, which are the surveillance and tracking tools available to officers and agencies themselves. It finds:

• The convergence of datasets and their increased availability to new agencies enabled by mobile biometric scanning devices has empowered police and immigration enforcement officers to rapidly identify people and check their immigration status.

• The Digital, Data and Technology unit is developing a system known internally as the 'Status Checking' Project aimed at obtaining and sharing "an individual's immigration status in real time with authorised users, providing proof of entitlement to a range of public and private services, such as work, rented accommodation, healthcare and benefits."

• Border entry points and the sea are monitored by the Border Force and other authorities, with several private companies providing technology.

Finally, a section on international operations describes the UK's co-operation with overseas counterparts to increase surveillance capabilities. The section's key findings are:

• Fingerprints of asylum seekers are searched against the main criminal fingerprinting database used by law enforcement in the UK, the IDENT1. They are also run against the databases of other countries, providing authorities with access to any information associated with those prints, including the EURODAC - a pan-European asylum fingerprint database containing more than 7 million records.

• Under "Project Hunter", the UK Border Force uses aid money to bolster the "border intelligence and targeting" capabilities of foreign security agencies with UK know-how and equipment. The Border Force is also advising countries on amending legislation to facilitate data gathering and targeting, as well as providing data analysis services.

• The UK intelligence agencies, together with counterparts in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the US, are part of an intelligence alliance called the "Five Eyes" through which they coordinate intelligence collection, operations, and sharing. There is also an equivalent for immigration agencies, called the Five Country Conference.

In an article about last week's online launch of the report, Computer Weekly quoted Edin Omanovic, the report's author, as saying that the immigration system "is very susceptible to being securitised", as the narrative around immigration in the UK so often sees migrants as a threat that needs to be monitored.

"That's almost become ingrained in the national conversation, and the issue fundamentally comes down to this lack of transparency and the secrecy surrounding this entire ecosystem," Omanovic added.

Computer Weekly quoted Mary Atkinson of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) as saying "the report shows how data is used in ways that many people don't know about to increase surveillance and track people in many aspects of their everyday lives", all with the aim of pursuing the hostile environment.