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Jim Killock

Executive director, Open Rights Group

Jim Killock: why we’re taking the government to court over the Data Protection Bill

After the Windrush scandal, and the destruction of landing cards that had been used as evidence of people’s residency in the UK, you might think that the Home Office would want to avoid further immigration scandals.

However, the Home Office is pushing ahead with a data protection exemption that risks creating a digital Windrush scandal, particularly likely to hit both the Windrush generation and the three million EU residents who will shortly need to demonstrate their right to remain in the UK.

The exemption removes the right for individuals to access personal data, if it may “prejudice effective immigration control”. That data is vital for people often to show the Home Office that it already has the evidence that people are legally entitled to live and work in the UK.

Removing access rights could easily lead to deportations, denials of entitlements and very serious detriments to people’s personal lives – just as we have seen with the Windrush generation.

The exemption also permits the Home Office to hoard health, education or any other data to trawl through to find people it believes are suspicious. This makes everyone’s interactions with government an opportunity to be assessed for our citizenship status. There will be immediate and perverse effects: from children who will be kept away from schools in case they reveal the presence of a parent, through to people with tuberculosis who fail to seek treatment.

This practice has become so controversial that the government is making a last minute concession to promise not to use health data. But that is a matter of policy, which can change.

However, perhaps the most pernicious effect of using government data to profile the population for their residency status is that it will falsely label people as “suspicious” and push them into an investigatory net through no fault of their own. These people will no doubt be disproportionately working class, less well educated, and perhaps come from certain ethnic groups.

Automated decision making for investigatory purposes is notorious for throwing up social biases, or pulling people into dragnets for no good reason. From the point of view of creating a “hostile environment” this may seem perfect. From any other viewpoint it is one of the most dangerous forms of mass surveillance we have seen proposed in the UK so far, proposed by one of the least trustworthy departments in government.

The Opposition tabled an amendment to remove the exemption, which has been voted down. We thank the MPs that tried to stop it, but now the campaign needs to challenge the soon-to-be Act in the courts.

We are therefore crowdfunding to challenge the exemption on human rights grounds, alongside the3million, who represent EU citizens campaigning for their legal right to remain in the UK. We believe the exemption is disproportionate and conflicts with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation. The exemption is an attack on everyone’s right to privacy and data rights: and it couldn’t come at a worse time.