Home Office’s GPS migrant-monitoring broke law, ICO finds

Department claims it is ‘disappointed’ to receive an enforcement notice over a 16-month programme to fit asylum claimants with ankle tags, which an investigation found did not address privacy requirements

The Home Office has been issued with an enforcement notice after regulators found that the department breached data-protection law by using electronic monitoring devices to track migrants.

In summer 2022 the Home Office began a pilot exercise in which about 600 asylum claimants arriving in the UK were fitted with electronic ankle tags enabling their movements to be monitored via GPS. Shortly afterwards – and prompted by concerns over the legality of the initiative raised by campaign group privacy international, the Information Commissioner’s Office began an investigation.

Following the completion of this probe, the watchdog has announced that the department breached data laws by not adequately assessing the likely “privacy intrusion” of its measures nor providing sufficient information to those affected as to why their data was being collected and how it was being used. The Home Office also failed to properly assess the impact on a cohort of people likely to be especially vulnerable, according to the ICO.

Information commissioner John Edwards said: “Having access to a person’s 24/7 movements is highly intrusive, as it is likely to reveal a lot of information about them, including the potential to infer sensitive information such as their religion, sexuality, or health status. Lack of clarity on how this information will be used can also inadvertently inhibit people’s movements and freedom to take part in day-to-day activities. If such information were to be mishandled or misinterpreted, it could potentially have harmful consequences to people and their future. The Home Office did not assess those risks sufficiently, which means the pilot scheme was not legally compliant.”

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The notice issued by the ICO orders the Home Office to amend its internal guidance regarding the data-collection initiative and the information that has been retained since the pilot ended in December 2023. The watchdog has also instructed the department that if restarts the monitoring regime, or an equivalent programme, it will again be in breach of the law, and liable to be hit with further enforcement action.

“We recognise the Home Office’s crucial work to keep the UK safe, and it’s for them to decide on what measures are necessary to do so,” Edwards said. “But I’m sending a clear warning to the Home Office that they cannot take the same approach in the future. It is our duty to uphold people’s information rights, regardless of their circumstances.”

In response to the ICO’s action, a Home Office spokesperson said: “We are disappointed that the ICO has issued this notice and, whilst acknowledging improvements to documentation could be made, we reject the claim that the privacy risks of the scheme weren’t sufficiently addressed. The pilot was designed to help us maintain contact with selected asylum claimants, deter absconding and progress asylum claims more effectively. We will now carefully consider the ICO’s findings and respond in due course.”

In addition to the deployment of ankle tags to track asylum-seekers, PublicTechnology also revealed in August 2022 that the Home Office had signed a six-figure contract for thousands of barcode-enabled wristbands to be used as “migrant trackers”.

Sam Trendall

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