10:57, April 10 83 0 theguardian.com

2019-04-10 10:57:04
Government immigration database 'deeply sinister', say campaigners

The Home Office is developing a database that could provide quick immigration checks to outside organisations amid criticism from campaigners, who call it “deeply sinister” and say it could amount to a “secret digital IT system”.

The human rights organisation Liberty expressed concern about the

Status Checking Project, which was detailed in an independent inspection report published by the Home Office.

The inspection report outlined that the department was planning “to establish a system that obtains and shares an individual’s immigration status in real time with authorised users, providing proof of entitlement to a range of public and private services, such as work, rented accommodation, healthcare and benefits”.

While the Home Office has not yet been specific about bodies that could access the information, a previous trial allowed right-to-work details to be shared with employers.

In a letter to the home secretary, Sajid Javid, and to Caroline Nokes, the MP for Romsey and Southampton North, Liberty said it had grave concerns about the project becoming a database containing a large amount of information about large sections of the population.

They called on Javid to provide more transparency on what the project involves. “The secrecy over it is astonishing and deeply sinister. Unfortunately, it’s characteristic of the Home Office’s continuing hostile environment policy,” said Gracie Bradley, Liberty’s policy and campaigns manager.

She said the Home Office had already suffered a series of legal and political defeats when it came to “shadowy data processing practices for immigration enforcement” – from trying to access the personal information of migrant patients, to forcing schools to collect data on nationality and country of birth.

She added: “The fact that it 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. It also demonstrates a disregard for protecting our private data that should worry us all.”

Last year a right-to-work status check was used to test the viability of the project. It let those who hold biometric residence permits/cards or those with status under the EU Settlement Scheme to share their right-to-work status securely with their employer.

The Home Office said this let people control who they shared this information with, and also gave them the chance to correct or challenge incorrect information. In future the plan is for the Home Office to use the same technology to, for example, allow landlords to check a potential tenant’s right to rent and for police to check someone’s right to hold a UK driving licence.

In response to questions from the Guardian, a Home Office spokesperson said the project would make the information the government holds about people “more open and transparent to those people, and will enable the sharing of that information in a more modern and efficient way”. They said they take “data protection obligations very seriously.”

They said that the aim of the project was to make it easier to share data between departments. They did not offer a response to Liberty’s letter but said data sharing would only be done where the appropriate legal powers and safeguards exist.

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