More than 40 UK rights organizations sent a public letter to British Home Secretary Priti Pratel on Monday. They were united in condemning the introduction of 24-hour GPS monitoring of people on immigration bail in an expansion of surveillance powers that has been done without any consultation process.
The new policy marks a shift from using radio frequency monitors (which alert authorities if the wearer leaves an assigned area) to round-the-clock GPS trackers (which can track a person’s every move). It also gives the Home Office new powers to collect, store and access this data indefinitely through a private contractor.
The letter dated June 14 says that "whereas radio frequency monitoring can verify whether a person is where they should be at a given time, GPS monitoring provides 24/7 real time location monitoring, tracking an individual’s every move: it tells you where someone has gone, where they have shopped, what GP’s practice they have been to, and much more."
Those affected by the GPS tagging are foreign nationals who face deportation following criminal convictions of 12 months or more, according to an article published in The Guardian. They are currently selected on a discretionary basis but the government is seeking a statutory instrument to make monitoring mandatory for thousands more, irrespective of the severity of their crimes or flight risk, prompting concerns over safeguarding.
"Not only is the Home Office extending its surveillance of people on immigration bail, the data will be used for reasons going beyond monitoring compliance with bail. GPS monitoring will track the location of the wearer 24/7 and store that data," said Rudy Schulkind at Bail for Immigration Detainees, speaking with InfoMigrants.
Dangerous privacy breach
There is no time limit for how long people can be tracked for and the letter also warns that the British government has given itself the authority to use people’s data for reasons unrelated to bail.
They could, for example, use it to investigate immigration claims made under article 8 of the European convention on human rights, which protects private and family life. This could mean that if someone is challenging their deportation because they have a child in the UK, the government can look through that person’s GPS data to see whether they visited their child enough times while being tracked.
"A fundamentally dangerous implication of this proposal is that people who make human rights claims will now be required to give the state carte blanche to access highly personal and sensitive geolocation data—simply because it 'may be relevant' to their claim," says the organizations in their letter. "Worse still is the fact that it appears that individuals may not even be made aware of this when it happens."
"It effectively allows the government to use highly personal data for a fishing exercise, searching for reasons to reject an application."
Psychological harm of wearing a tag
The rights associations are also worried about the psychological harm caused by this type of electronic monitoring. The repercussions have already been well-documented. Tag-wearers report that tags have an impact on almost every area of life including the ability to participate in society; relationships; financial and emotional stress; sleep; feelings of dehumanization and stigma, as well as the physical discomfort of wearing a tag on your ankle.
"It is an ankle tag and it is stigmatizing for the wearer. Although it is important to clarify that the previous radio frequency tags that were used before GPS were also ankle tags and therefore also stigmatizing," said Schulkind.
'My feet were swelling and bleeding'
Mo (not his real name) is one of 269 people to have been fitted with the new GPS tags, according to freedom of information data obtained by the law firm Leigh Day, and faces deportation due to a criminal conviction.
He told the Guardian he had been detained under immigration powers for nearly a year after completing his criminal sentence. One week after his release on bail, a private contractor arrived at his house and told him he had to put a GPS tag on or face re-imprisonment -- a condition that was not mentioned during his bail hearing.
"My feet were swelling and bleeding. It was too tight and it got infected," he said. "I have no idea when it’s going to be taken off. I feel bad, I feel down, I feel anxious; I don’t know how to describe it in words. I’m not having my freedom like other people do."
One woman who participated in the study said the ankle monitor physically prevented her from kneeling down to pray, while another said she had stopped taking her son to the playground because it made other parents uncomfortable.