How Tech and Data are Tools for Undermining Migrants’ Rights

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The UK Home Office and international border enforcement are utilising technological advancements, causing repercussions on migrants and asylum seekers, as well as our data security. 

One article is not enough to unpack the complexities of the Hostile Environment policy, but I bet there’s one thing you’ve never considered… the Home Office uses a web of data-sharing to target migrants. And enforcement agencies across the globe are using data abuses to erode rights at borders. That may seem like a dystopian Sci-Fi YA novel, but sadly it’s not Katniss Everdeen we need to be concerned for: it’s our human rights and digital freedom.

Part of the Hostile Environment is an interconnected web of secret data-sharing agreements with different and separate governmental departments and non-governmental public bodies, with the aims of creating a sinister-sounding migrant database; and the consequences of this entanglement can be devastating state violence. The Home Office has such agreements with the police, NHS, job centres and employers, banks, landlords, schools and universities and even charities like Thames Reach and St Mungo’s – who provide beds and support to rough sleepers! St Mungo’s had to issue an apology for handing over personal information and locations of homeless people to the Home Office, and a court ruled that the government was to pay hundreds of thousands of pounds after illegally detaining and deporting homeless EU nationals.

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This is but one example of how dangerous this practice by our government can be. Yet it goes further… It prevents migrants from using a range of public services and ruins their day-to-day life. Imagine being so terrified of the government authorities that you are prevented from applying for legal jobs; renting or owning legal housing; reporting crimes to police as a witness or victim; sending your children to school or giving schools your children’s full details and subsequent denial of free-school meals; not attending a certain amount of university lectures regardless of  personal circumstances; or receiving urgent medical attention from public healthcare services (and in the other direction, the two-way agreement allows the NHS to check if they can charge the person the immigration health surcharge for use of England’s world-renowned ‘universal healthcare’) at the risk of deportation and/or criminalisation. Frankly, the Home Office has turned us – the public servants, teachers, lecturers, doctors, nurses, landlords, employers, outreach officers and charity workers – into unwilling, and sometimes even unknowing, border guards through these information exchange channels.

These practices overrule data protection obligations and these departments such as Department for Education, Health and Social Care, Work and Pensions, have no obligation to report individuals’ data to the Home Office. NHS Digital was lobbied into truncating its agreement to trace undocumented people, however, it has so far failed to fulfil this commitment.

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Worse yet, it’s not just our government that is using data against migrants: this is becoming commonplace across the globe.

Tech that enables illicit and fast data extraction of mobile phone use, is increasingly being used to process and reject asylum seekers’ applications to entry (more and more) quickly. Europe, and regions across the globe, conduct digital strip searching and mobile forensics to deport digitally-vulnerable migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. The UK and Norway have had these powers of intrusion for years to decrease immigration numbers, but Germany and more recently Austria and Denmark have adopted similar legislation. Denmark has gone even further by delving into social media and requesting individuals’ Facebook passwords.  But what does that mean?

One digital forensics company is the Munich-based T3K-Forensics, which is at work at the Germany-Austria border alongside authorities and universities. Another is the Israeli surveillance company Cellebrite Mobile Synchronization, which markets technology for authorities to carry out ‘digital forensics’, which means that bypassing the passwords on a personal device is not only possible, but opens the door to quickly extract, analyse, and visualise sensitive data. In fact, their own website states that their technology will ‘keep you more than one step ahead’.

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Let’s examine the reality, Europe failed to deal with the 2015 migrant crisis in a humanitarian manor and actively chose to make immigration as difficult as possible to reduce intake. But if each person is innocent, their request of entry surely couldn’t be refused, right?

Migration in today’s world has demonstrated how integral technology has become. Migrants use their mobile phones to search migration routes; keep up to date with potential hazards, obstructions, border closures, policy changes and re-routes; text, WhatsApp and instant message family, friends and contacts, dangerous smugglers and scammers, and advice to avoid police patrols that would send you back to danger, as well as information about accessing vital services when they arrive in a safe country.

Border agents can refuse entry if they suspect ‘traces of illicit activity’ which is almost impossible to circumvent a criteria that includes photos, private messages, associations on social media, location history to ‘dangerous’ places, backed-up cloud data and metadata. My own personal profile picture would likely be reason enough for border enforcement to deny my entry if I were a migrant.

When your application to cross a border depends on handing over your phone, it is arguable as to whether the ‘consent’ is really consent at all. The invasive scope of the process strips the people who are seeking safety of their right to privacy, freedom of expression and political opinions, and even dignity.

The Home Office Immigration Enforcement authority made a payment of £45,000 to Cellebrite in May 2018. Our governments are using migrants, refugees and asylum seekers as guinea pigs to test the boundaries of surveillance on their quest of invasion into our data, and keeping immigration numbers to a minimum. A new industry of digital weapons is growing. With the political climate becoming increasingly hostile to migrants, heightened militarisation and policing of borders, and our fellow humans being labelled as ‘outsiders’ on either side of them, we can only imagine the nightmare which the future holds if no one stands up for migrant rights, for human rights.

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News & Investigations Editor 2019-20. I'm a serial Netflix-binger, writer and big time radio nerd. I like politics and comedy (the two seem to be more blurred nowadays) as well as Sci-Fi and 'geek culture'. Video essays are my current obsession. Studying Natural Sciences at Uni of Southampton.

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