Migrants convicted of a crime in the UK may soon have to submit five daily facial recognition scans via a smartwatch as part of sweeping new surveillance practices under consideration by the country’s Home Office and Ministry of Justice. Privacy advocates say the always-on surveillance wearable is cruel, unnecessary, and based on technology plagued by inaccuracy and bias.
In 2021 data protection impact assessment document acquired by The Guardian provides details on how the face scanning smartwatch would work. According to the documents, migrants involved in the UK’s Home Office Satellite Tracking Service would undergo daily monitoring using either the new wrist wearable or a fitted ankle tag. Migrants targeted with the watch would be required to submit photographs using the watch’s camera; those images would be cross-checked using facial recognition software against images stored on Home Office systems. If the facial verification fails, the migrant would then have to verify their identity manually. Scans could occur as often as five times per day.
The UK 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) that are 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. Buddi Limited declined Gizmodo’s request for comment on this story.
In addition to 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 UK’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 Gizmodo. “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.”
In a separate statementPrivacy International rejected the argument that identity verification tools like facial recognition are more human alternatives to ankle bracelets.
“Facial recognition is a dangerous, discriminatory tech—it regularly misidentifies people of color & is disproportionately used against minorities,” Privacy International said. “Wearables are the last frontier in total digitalisation and surveillance of our lives, leading to inevitable human rights abuses when used by powerful institutions against vulnerable populations.”
Madeleine Stone, legal and policy officer for Big Brother Watch, criticized the Home Office for failing to properly justify the cost of the program, and using questionable facial recognition technology.
“This intrusive technology is a new low for a government obsessed with subjecting migrants and refugees to increasingly dehumanizing surveillance,” Stone told Gizmodo. “Facial recognition technology is notoriously inaccurate and misidentifications could lead to serious consequences for vulnerable individuals. The Home Office has failed to demonstrate that this costly electronic tracking is necessary and should abandon these plans.”
The Home Office did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment, but provided a statement to The Guardian indicating it’s planning to introduce a “portable biometrically accessed device.”
“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,” the Home Office said.
Although privacy and digital rights groups have regularly criticized the inherently invasive nature of remote monitoring tools, the UK government sees them as a cost effective alternative to holding individuals in custody. In the United States, the Department of Homeland Security often invokes similar cost-effectiveness arguments to justify it growing arsenal of surveillance technologies used to monitor immigrants.
Privacy International’s Lucie Audibert doesn’t buy that.
“Maybe the £6m that will line up [Buddi Limited’s] pockets would be better spent on support for vulnerable migrants, dealing with the backlog of immigration applications, and generally useful, respectful and lawful policies,” she said.