Sanwar Ali: additional reporting and comments
A report published by Wired, provides details of a secretive Home Office UK immigration database with information on millions of people. According to the report, The Data Services and Analytics unit has collected information on more than 650 million people, including children under the age of 13.
There have been a number of issues with misuse of data. Both the Home Office and organisations working closely with the Home Office cannot always be trusted with data. From past experience more sharing of data will lead to greater injustices for minorities and migrants.
The Home Office has refused to disclose details of the unit’s activity, but it’s understood that the unit is involved in at least two Home Office projects, the warnings index and status checking project.
The warnings index is a UK immigration watchlist database, which provides members of law enforcement agencies, such as Border Force, with the names of individuals ‘with previous UK immigration history and those of interest to detection staff, police or matters of national security’, according to a report published by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration.
Unfit for purpose
The watchlist, developed in 1995, has been heavily criticised over the past 10 years. It has been branded ‘unfit for purpose’, while in 2019 The Guardian was told by a whistleblower that employees without the required level of security clearance had been accessing the system.
Meanwhile, the status checking project keeps a record of and shares live UK immigration status information across government and law enforcement agencies. It’s used to provide ‘proof of entitlement to a range of public and private services’, including work, rented accommodation, healthcare and benefits, according to a government report.
In 2019, human rights advocacy group Liberty alerted people to the project and said that the secrecy around it was ‘deeply sinister’.
Liberty’s policy and campaigns manager, Gracie Bradley, told The Guardian at the time: “The fact that [the Home Office] is now trying to build what is effectively a massive migrant database to make it easier to deny people access to essential goods and services shows that it has learned absolutely none of the lessons of the Windrush Scandal.”
News of what has been dubbed a ‘super database’ comes following the exposure of a controversial UK algorithm in 2020, used to screen UK visa applicants. The tool was the subject of a legal challenge by independent advocacy organisation Foxglove and the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI).
Each of these groups claimed that the algorithm: “Entrenched racism and bias into the visa system.” The tool was shown to automatically give individuals from certain countries a ‘red’ traffic light score, increasing the chances of a UK visa application being rejected.
The algorithm was scrapped by the Home Office prior to the legal challenge progressing to court, with the government department saying that it was ‘redesigning its processes.’
It’s unknown whether the Data Services and Analytics unit was involved in the UK visa algorithm. However, legal policy director of the JCWI, Chai Patel, claims that discriminatory data processing is rife across the Home Office.
He said: “The datasets the Home Office uses are tainted by decades of institutional racial bias, and this data, therefore, poses grave risks to both British and migrant ethnic minorities. We need root and branch reform of the Home Office and complete transparency over how they use the personal information entrusted to them.”
The Home Office was recently forced to sign a legal document stating that it would not repeat the mistakes of the Windrush scandal. Meanwhile, an internal government review found that the UK ‘no longer has a system rigged against people from ethnic minorities.’
However, the review has been branded ‘a joke’, with many anti-racism campaigners stating that ‘the British government’s own review telling itself that the UK is not racist highlights just how deeply ingrained racism is.’
Professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University, Kehinde Andrews, said: “The Race Report is not a genuine effort to understand racism in Britain. It’s complete nonsense. It goes in the face of all the actual existing evidence. This is a PR move to pretend the problem doesn’t exist.”
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