According to the International Organization for Migration, an estimated 258 million people are international migrants – that is, someone who changes their country of usual residence, That’s one in every 30 people on earth.
These unprecedented movements levels show no sign of slowing down. It is predicted that by 2050, there will be 450 million migrants across the world.
Nowadays, it is politically acceptable to demonise migrants, and countless leaders have spewed divisive and xenophobic rhetoric. Borders have become more militarised and policies have become more hostile, with the explicit purpose of making the lives of migrants, who are already in vulnerable situations, even more precarious.
More worryingly, governments are using migrants as the testing ground for many of their so-called innovations – biometric schemes, invasive mobile phone extraction procedures, and more. The standard of proof for being a ‘legitimate migrant’ has now dramatically expanded.
Migrants are now expected to hand over their devices, their social media passwords, and even their DNA. They are being exposed to systems that demand more and more of their data, so that immigration authorities can build a profile of them, their families, and their activities.
Handing over your history
In 2018, it was revealed that the US government was planning to collect social media identities from most immigrant and non-immigrant visa applicants – a move that would affect almost 15 million people annually.
Privacy International submitted a response to a consultation on this issue in 2017, where we argued that the use of social media intelligence (SOCMINT) techniques and technologies are a serious threat to privacy.
By monitoring our social media, immigration authorities are given the opportunity to gain a deep understanding into our daily lives. Social media posts can reveal location data, and their content reveals individual opinions and insight about a person’s preferences and connections.
This hunger for data to predict ‘suitability’ means that governments are now building shadowy profiles of people to guide their decision-making, leaving migrants with no recourse to challenge the identities and narratives that are being constructed around them.
In the past few years, governments have adopted the dubious move of using migrants’ electronic devices as verification tools. This practice is made easier with the use of mobile extraction tools, which allow an individual to download key data from a smartphone, including contacts, call data, text messages, stored files, location information, and more.
In 2017, German authorities passed a law that would allow immigration officials to seize data from the smartphones, laptops, and tablets of asylum seekers to determine their identities and nationalities. In the first six months of enforcement, 8,000 phones were searched.
In 2018, the Austrian government approved a law forcing asylum seekers to hand over their phones so authorities could check their origin, with the aim of determining if their asylum request should be invalidated if they were found to have previously entered another EU country. Similar legislation has been passed in Denmark, and has been conducted in the UK and Norway for years.
These steps have effectively weaponised the devices of asylum seekers, who can longer see them only as tools facilitating their freedom and must now be conscious of the ways they can be used against them.
Privacy International has conducted extensive research into Cellebrite, a surveillance marketing firm that is increasingly being used by governments to carry out these activities.
The decision to migrate is never an easy one. Fleeing from war, persecution, and deprivation, migrants are among the most vulnerable communities in the world. Yet governments are consciously exposing them to disproportionate and arbitrary risks that are making their situations even worse.
Migration policies must integrate the strongest privacy and data protection standards to ensure that the data of migrants is not used against them as a weapon by unaccountable state agencies. Experimenting on the most vulnerable among us is an ominous sign for our societies, and a trend that we must reverse if we truly believe in the dignity of all human beings, no matter their origin.