Home Office to collect foreign offenders' biometric data using smartwatch scheme

A smartwatch on someone's arm, lit in red

The Home Office is planning to fit migrants who have committed a crime with smartwatches containing facial recognition technology, with which they will be required to scan their faces up to five times per day.

Migrants fitted with the devices will be expected to complete regular checks, such as taking a photo of themselves for data processing at points throughout each day.

Their names, date of birth, nationality, and facial recognition data will be stored, and checked against a Home Office database, for use in determining whether or not a manual check is required. Location data of those wearing the smartwatches will also be constantly recorded.

Collected data will be stored for up to six years, and during this time will be shared between the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice and the police.

Use of a database to cross-check daily photos of migrants to facial recognition data was not expanded upon, but the Metropolitan Police Service has a controversial history of using facial recognition databases, having been discovered surveiling passengers at King’s Cross in 2019 for that purpose.

According to a letter seen by The Guardian, the Home Office pressed ahead with plans for “daily monitoring of individuals subject to immigration control” after completing a data protection impact assessment (DPIA) in August 2021.

Under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), organisations seeking to implement new systems that could infringe upon the rights of subjects must run a DPIA, in which the data controller assesses the risks of processing data on subjects.

Rights groups have been vocal about their objection to the collection of facial recognition data, both in regards to the invasion of privacy that they see it as representing and also in doubt of the degree to which the technology can be relied on. Big Brother Watch state that between 2016 and 2022, facial recognition used by the Metropolitan Police Service was 87% inaccurate.

The scale of the operation is not currently public knowledge, though the contract signed between the Ministry of Justice and Buddi Limited is valued at up to £6 million by 30 December 2023.

Home Office data for the year ending June 2021 shows that 2,809 foreign national offenders (FNOs) were returned from the UK that year, a number that would prove sizeable to track if all FNOs were chosen for the smartwatch programme.

In June, an independent legal review by the Ada Lovelace Institute urgently called for new legislation to regulate the use of biometric data, as well as recommending the creation of a biometric ethics board.

In contrast, the government’s proposed Data Reform Bill, which ministers have credited with cutting down the “red tape and pointless paperwork” of GDPR, seeks to reduce the need to seek user consent in certain circumstances, including data processing by criminal justice organisations and police forces.

“The Home Office is still not clear how long individuals will remain on monitoring,” Dr Monish Bhatia, a lecturer in criminology at Birkbeck, University of London, told the Guardian.

“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.”

IT Pro reached out to the Home Office for a statement. Buddi Limited declined to provide comment.

Rory Bathgate
Features and Multimedia Editor

Rory Bathgate is Features and Multimedia Editor at ITPro, overseeing all in-depth content and case studies. He can also be found co-hosting the ITPro Podcast with Jane McCallion, swapping a keyboard for a microphone to discuss the latest learnings with thought leaders from across the tech sector.

In his free time, Rory enjoys photography, video editing, and good science fiction. After graduating from the University of Kent with a BA in English and American Literature, Rory undertook an MA in Eighteenth-Century Studies at King’s College London. He joined ITPro in 2022 as a graduate, following four years in student journalism. You can contact Rory at rory.bathgate@futurenet.com or on LinkedIn.