Data protection laws going through Parliament this week propose to exempt individuals’ data privacy rights for the ‘maintenance of effective immigration control’ or ‘the investigation or detection of activities that would interfere with effective immigration control’. What is meant by ‘effective immigration control’ and ‘interference’ are undefined and therefore open ended.
Crucially, the exemptions mean that individuals won’t know that their personal information is being shared with the Home Office, or, who it’s being shared by. If the Home Office were to access our school, health, DWP or tax records for immigration control purposes, it could do so without us knowing or having the opportunity to make corrections or to ask for inaccuracies to be deleted. Data on each and every one of us could be used or shared for the purposes of immigration control, or the investigation of activities that would interfere with it, even where there is no suspicion of crime.
The immigration exemptions going through Parliament will make data sharing regarding migrants more likely and frequent, whatever their immigration status. Liberty has raised that the data of those supporting undocumented migrants through charities, night shelters and food banks, could also fall under these exemptions given that Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ is conceived, in her own words, of avoiding “a situation where people think that they can come here and overstay because they’re able to access everything they need.”
The precedents, which reinforce this aim, are already cause for concern. Controversial measures include collecting data relating to school pupils’ nationality and country of birth for the National Pupil Database. This was met with opposition from the NUT and campaigners. Since 2015, the Department of Education has been sharing personal information on up to 1,500 children each month with the Home Office, to help it track down undocumented children and their families, increasing fears of deportation. When the government attempted to create a ‘foreign workers’ list, it was widely reviled and rejected. If a de facto ‘foreign pupil’ list ended up being created under this bill’s exemption, it would meet with similar opposition.
However, such measures do not stop at schools. A memorandum of understanding was established last year between the Home office and the Department of Health to transfer patients’ personal information from NHS Digital to the Home Office for immigration enforcement purposes. The priority of schools and hospitals is to provide essential public services, not to be part of the border force. Neither are charities supporting rough sleepers. Yet within the last year Home Office immigration enforcement have had access to a map of rough sleepers in London including European nationals, which used data collected for the purposes of charity, not for deportation. Teachers, parents, charity workers and health workers are having their information contributions utilized by the Home Office, often without their knowledge. Similarly an FOI by politics.co.uk revealed that witness and victim details have been handed over by the Metropolitan police to the Home Office where immigration status concerns have been raised. Migrant rights groups have rightly raised that this could lead to some victims of crime feeling stigmatized and deterred from reporting future incidents. The idea of anyone being deterred from attending a school, or approaching a hospital, police station or charity for help, is disturbing.
Given the chaos at the Home Office, which has included sending letters threatening deportation to EU nationals in error, we need more scrutiny, checks and balances, not less. Add Brexit to the mix and it is not difficult to see that a climate of suspicion and hostility is becoming the order of the day around foreign nationals. However, the implications of this bill suggest that when it comes to a big brother approach on our personal data, we are all in this together.