The deployment is planned as early as this fall: smartwatches equipped with facial recognition technology will be imposed throughout the country on foreigners convicted of criminal offenses. The Home Office (British Interior Ministry) and the Ministry of Justice deny any extension to asylum seekers. But the NGOs are worried about it, and are already pointing out the discrimination and violations of rights that could be caused by such technology.
Migrants convicted of a criminal offense in the UK will have to scan their faces with smartwatches that work on facial recognition. The deployment of this technology is planned from this fall.
The Home Office, the UK equivalent of the Home Office, and the Ministry of Justice are behind the initiative. Initial budget: six million pounds sterling (nearly seven million euros). The departments contracted Buddi Limited in May to develop the product. If the contract is public, the number of devices that will be in circulation is not known.
The Home Office plans to enforce facial recognition five times a day. Photographs of faces will be matched with information such as names, dates of birth and nationalities, and cross-checked against Home Office databases.
All this data can be stored for a period of six years, and will allow geolocation “24 hours a day, 7 days a week” details The Guardian, which investigated this file. They will be shared between the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice and the police.
“No other country in Europe has deployed this dehumanizing technology”
“Facial recognition is known to be an imperfect and dangerous technology which tends to discriminate against people of color and marginalized communities”, criticizes Lucie Audibert, legal officer of the NGO Privacy International, interviewed by The Guardian. Also a lawyer, she believes that this type of technology encourages “human rights violations. No other country in Europe has deployed this dehumanizing and invasive technology against migrants”.
Moreover, such a surveillance system is not without psychological consequences for the persons concerned. “Electronic monitoring is an intrusive control technology. Some people develop symptoms of anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation and general deterioration of mental health,” warns Dr Monish Bhatia, senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Birkbeck (London), also quoted by The Guardian.
For its part, the Home Office assumes. Its services believe that “public opinion expects us to monitor convicted foreign offenders”, relays the British newspaper. The ministry recalls having “succeeded in identifying more than 2,500 foreign criminals” since August 2021. And even, “since January 2019, the government has deported more than 10,000 foreign criminals. Foreign criminals should have no doubts about our determination to deport them,” he said, pledging to “do everything possible” to increase these deportations.
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This speech is not without echoing the current communication of the French Minister of the Interior, Gérald Darmanin. This has multiplied the interventions around the expulsion of “foreign offenders” and the “double penalty”, in recent weeks.
Fear of wider application
The Home Office promises loud and clear that facial recognition will be dedicated to convicted foreigners, and not to other profiles of people, such as asylum seekers. “To suggest that this contract applies to asylum seekers who have arrived by illegal means is simply wrong,” a ministry spokesperson told The Guardian. But the NGOs fear an extension of this surveillance system to exiles on the territory, including non-convicted.
This was, in fact, the original intention of the Home Office. This is revealed by an impact study on the use of smartwatches, commissioned by the Home Office, and carried out in August 2021. The NGO Privacy International obtained a copy. In this study, consulted by the Guardian, the Home Office then assumed the objective of “daily surveillance of people subject to immigration control”. And this, via the wearing of an electronic bracelet on the ankle, or that of a smart watch on the wrist.
>> To (re)read: London to equip migrants with electronic bracelets
This facial recognition technology is closely linked to the implementation of the GPS bracelet, imposed on certain migrants since June 2022. Thus, it is expected that people forced to wear smart watches will be “subject to the same conditions as those equipped with ankle GPS beacons,” says The Guardian. In particular, the respect of a curfew, and the prohibition to move in certain areas.
“Despite the massive and blind nature of this surveillance, no judicial or independent control is planned”, already worried about the GPS bracelets the NGO Privacy International.
A project underway since 2020
The idea of smartwatches with the ability to scan and recognize faces is not new. A report on the development of electronic surveillance, conducted by the National Audit Office (a parliamentary body independent of the government) and published on June 23, 2022, is instructive on this point.
He explains that a first deployment project had been planned since 2020. But the development of the product, then led by the company G4S, was greatly delayed. In November 2021, he is even suspended. Official reason: the Ministry of Justice estimated that the device “used an operating system that did not meet the requirements of government cybersecurity standards”.
Since then, the ministries concerned have “found an alternative option with delivery scheduled for fall 2022”, the report concludes.