The way the UK government has been tagging migrants with GPS trackers is illegal, the country’s privacy regulator ruled on Friday, in a rebuke to officials who have been experimenting with migrant-surveillance tech in both the UK and the US.

As part of an 18-month pilot that concluded in December, the UK interior ministry, known as the Home Office, forced up to 600 people who arrived in the country without permission to wear ankle tags that continuously tracked their locations. However, that pilot broke UK data protection law because it did not properly assess the privacy intrusion of GPS tracking or give migrants clear information about the data that was being collected, the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) said today. The ruling means the Home Office has 28 days to update its policies around GPS tracking.

Friday’s decision also means the ICO could fine the Home Office up to £17.5 million ($22 million) or 4 percent of its turnover—whichever is higher—if it resumes tagging people who arrive on the UK south coast in small boats from Europe. In 2023, over 29,000 people arrived using this often perilous route. Earlier this week, French rescue services said one person had died and two were missing after attempting to cross the English Channel, the stretch of water that separates England and France.

Critics of the GPS tags welcomed the decision. “Blanket 24/7 GPS surveillance of asylum seekers arriving in the UK runs diametrically opposed to data protection and privacy rights,” says Jonah Mendelsohn, a lawyer at Privacy International, a digital rights group that has campaigned against the tag. “The UK government’s gung-ho, Wild West approach in deploying deeply intrusive technology has through today’s decision collided with a rules-based system that we all have recourse to, regardless of our immigration status.” The Home Office did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment.

“Having access to a person’s 24/7 movements is highly intrusive, as it is likely to reveal a lot of information about them, including the potential to infer sensitive information such as their religion, sexuality, or health status,” said John Edwards, the UK information commissioner, in a statement. “Lack of clarity on how this information will be used can also inadvertently inhibit people’s movements and freedom to take part in day-to-day activities.”

The ICO did not rule that the Home Office had to delete migrants’ GPS data already stored in its systems. The regulator also left open the possibility that there may be a legal way to monitor migrants electronically, but not without data protections in place.

In UK courts, at least two cases revolving around GPS tags are awaiting judgment. In one, a 25-year-old former asylum seeker from Sudan, who was tagged by the Home Office as part of the pilot scheme after arriving in the UK via a small boat in May 2022, is challenging the regime for its disproportionate interference with his right to family and private life. Wearing the tag brought up painful memories of being bound and tortured during his journey to the UK, according to his lawyers at London firm Duncan Lewis, adding that his tag has since been removed.

Another case revolves around car mechanic Mark Nelson, who told WIRED that his experience wearing a GPS tag had been dehumanizing. “Our firm represents numerous individuals like Mark who are being electronically monitored,” says Katie Schwarzmann, a human rights lawyer at Wilsons Solicitors, who is representing Nelson. “In virtually all cases the Home Office has failed to provide evidence they have considered less-intrusive methods or explain why this draconian regime is necessary for immigration control.”

The UK is not the only country that is using GPS tracking devices as an alternative to immigration detention centers. Last year, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency also announced it would start tracking migrants using GPS ankle tags and specially designed smartwatches.


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