As most companies fret about the potentially dire implications of Brexit, those that provide surveillance and identity tracking services are positively salivating at the prospect of Britain’s separation from the European Union in 2019. Privacy defenders aren’t overly happy about the situation, though, warning about the invasiveness of upcoming plans to use facial verification technology to validate the identity of immigrants.
Just this week the Home Office announced a contract with a host of tech providers—British firm iProov, Canada’s WorldReach Software and Dutch business ReadID—to help guarantee the identity of foreign nationals applying to remain in the U.K.. Together, they’ve built an app that they say will make it easier for immigrants to go through the process, which forms part of the EU Exit Settlement Scheme.
Here’s how it works, according to iProov: Applicants use the mobile app—the EU Exit ID Document Check app—to upload an identity document, like a passport, along with a recent digital photo of their face. The app (which works only on Android phones, not Apple devices) will use facial verification tech that determines whether the person in the passport is the same as the individual in the photo. It will seek to ensure the applicant isn’t simply holding up a photo, screen image, recording or doctored video. And it’ll mean applicants don’t have to physically post documents.
Efficient or offensive?
Sounds efficient and sane enough. But there remain concerns: Where and how will this database be stored? Will it be used for any other purposes? Will faces be placed on watch lists, for instance? Neither iProov nor the Home Office answered these pressing questions. WorldReach said it wouldn’t comment at all on the contract.
Edin Omanovic at Privacy International told Forbes the app was analogous “to border guards knocking on every door in the U.K. and forcing EU nationals to show documentation.”
“Such use of biometrics across our lives is incredibly dangerous: From proving our status to the Home Office to doing the shopping, it is becoming increasingly ubiquitous.
“The data generated by all of this can build an incredibly detailed and sensitive picture of our lives, and without strong protections will be used for a host of reasons without our control, from credit checks to predicting the risk that we will commit a crime. It may start with forcing foreigners to hand over their biometrics, but it certainly won’t stop there if people allow it to.”
But the business opportunities for border tech companies around Brexit are big. Neither iProov nor WorldReach told Forbes how much the contract with the Home Office was worth. iProov simply said “the figure is substantial,” while WorldReach said it was in the multimillion-pound range, and the Home Office said it wouldn’t comment. While iProov’s chief Andrew Bud says his company is there to ease any pain around immigration regardless of Brexit, WorldReach is more open about taking advantage of the imminent border chaos.
In a recent interview with the Ottawa Business Journal, WorldReach president Gordon Wilson put it bluntly: “What Brexit did really was put a tight timeline—they have to get this up and running in about a year to be ready to go.”
To Brexit and beyond
Looking beyond Brexit, such providers can benefit from a world where more and more nations are closing up their borders. Earlier this year iProov scored a $190,000 contract with U.S. Customs and Border Protection as it seeks to help travelers “self-serve” the document check as they try to enter America. Travelers can use their mobile device to carry out the border photo checks, in a not dissimilar way to the post-Brexit deal.
“I don’t think our opportunities are specifically Brexit,” says Bud. “Worldwide there are many cases for tightening up border control, without making life even more difficult for citizens.”
Britain will also likely look to bolster its already booming arms business as a way to continue trading with the outside world, Omanovic says. Again, human rights activists won’t be pleased.
“The fear is that post-Brexit, Britain’s economy will be increasingly reliant on selling arms and security equipment around the world to the detriment of Britain’s human rights commitments, international security, and people’s lives,” Omanovic adds.
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