May 19, 2020 | Yva Alexandrova Meadway

Data, privacy and new tech in the immigration sector

Understanding the needs and capacities to deal with data, privacy and the use of new technologies in the immigration sector


Please take a moment to answer our survey on the immigration sector needs and capacities to deal with privacy, personal data, digital and technological changes: https://www.smartsurvey.co.uk/s/O150PS/ 

Migration is a process that still takes place very much in the real world: people cross physical borders, they travel thousands of miles, swim in ice cold water, sit in crammed lorries, live in camps often with little protection from nature. Increasingly, however, technology is becoming an essential part of their journeys, they use mobile technologies and social media to stay in touch with their families and friends, establish contacts to plan their journeys and find support in communities on arrival.

Governments are also increasingly using technology to manage migration. Personal data is collected upon arrival, when applying for asylum, fingerprints of asylum seekers are shared among members of the Eurodac system. Border control is increasingly done by means of biometric reading machines, fingertip, facial and iris scans and electronic gates. Questions around the use of AI in labour migration accompany some of the debates around the future of work. 

In the UK the most notable use of data in the immigration space has been through the agreement between the NHS and the Home Office in the context of the Hostile Environment policy. Introduced in 2011, it gives the Home Office sweeping powers and the mandate to access migrants personal data such as addresses collected by GPs, hospitals, schools, and job centres and use it to track down individuals for immigration detention or deportation.  

The “immigration exemption” as part of the 2018 Data Protection Act is another such example. A legal challenge brought by Open Rights Group (ORG) and the 3 million put forward the argument that the exemption, used by the Home Office to deny people access to their personal data, is far too broad and imprecise. As part of the proceedings, the Home Office was pushed to reveal it used the exemption in 60% of immigration-related requests for data.

The development of new technologies in response to the current Covid-19 crisis, such as tracing apps and immunity passports, are seen as important tools in fighting the pandemic. However, there are serious privacy concerns that affect vulnerable migrants as well as others. 

ORG is engaging in an effort to support and empower organisations in the migrant and refugee sector to become better equipped in dealing with data and privacy issues and understand new technologies, their impact on immigration policy and become better able to support their clients. Our work is funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and will include the provision of trainings, webinars, policy briefs, methodologies, thematic and technical explainers, etc. It will also aim to develop an active network for information sharing and signposting, capacity for advocating policy change and undertaking joint campaigns.

For the purpose of better understanding these needs and responding to them ORG and Privacy International have developed a survey and we are encouraging as many organisations as possible to take part in it. The survey can be found here: https://www.smartsurvey.co.uk/s/O150PS/.