Migrants convicted of a criminal offense will be required to scan their faces up to five times a day using smartwatches equipped with facial recognition technology under plans from the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice.
In May, the UK government offered the 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 will be introduced from the autumn across the UK at an initial cost of £6m.
A 2021 data protection impact assessment document acquired by The Guardian provides details on how the face scanning smartwatch would work. As per the papers, migrants registered into the UK’s Home Office Satellite Tracking Service would undergo daily observation using either the new smartwatch or a fitted ankle tag. Migrants linked with the watch would be required to submit photographs utilizing the watch’s camera; those images would be cross-verified using facial recognition software with images stored on Home Office systems. If the facial verification fails, the migrant would need to identify their identity manually. Scans could occur as often as five times a day.
The U.K. government reportedly signed a £6m contract in May with the technology firm Buddi Limited to implement the watch, according to documents spotted by The Guardian, with a goal of having the devices in use this fall. Buddi Limited develops thin wrist wearables (like those seen in the tweet below) marketed to elderly customers living alone. These devices, according to the company’s website, feature automatic fall detection, a push alarm button, and a location finder.
Apart from facial recognition scans, migrants forced into the smartwatch program will also submit real-time location data. Photographs sent to the government may be stored for up to six years. During that period, the Home Office will reportedly have the authority to share all that data with the U.K.’s Ministry of Justice and police.
Digital rights groups like U.K.-based Privacy International are criticizing the Home Office’s plan. “The Home Office keeps coming up with more egregious ideas to surveil and control migrants,” Privacy International lawyer and legal officer Lucie Audibert told a news outlet. “Tracking people’s GPS location 24/7 and asking them to submit random face scans throughout the day is simply cruel, degrading, unnecessary, and—we argue—unlawful.”
Location data will also be shared. This move is seen as a tactic to target only foreign-national criminals, who have been convicted of a criminal offense. The data will be shared with the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office, it’s said.
“The Home Office is still not clear how long individuals will remain on monitoring,” commented Monish Bhatia, a lecturer in criminology at Birkbeck, University of London.
“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.