Digital deception & disinformation used to deter migrants

The Information Commissioner’s Office has opened an investigation into a fake website created by the Home Office. The website, which is called “On the Move”, makes misleading claims about asylum, collects personal data about potential asylum seekers, and fails to disclose its affiliation to the Home Office. The site came to light as the result of an investigation by Lizzie Dearden at The Independent.

The site, in its claims to be an independent and impartial resource, purports to “provide migrants in transit with free, reliable and important information”. In truth, the site was created as part of a Home Office campaign to deter asylum seekers from crossing the channel. According to The Independent, £23,000 was spent by the UK Government, over five months, on a social media campaign to promote the website to asylum seekers.

The website appears to target refugees from critically vulnerable countries, including Afghanistan and Pakistan, as evidenced by the fact that its content is available in Dari, Kurdish, Pashto, Arabic and Tigrinya. As the Independent noted, “The website has a page on ‘safe and legal alternatives’ but none of them detail how to seek asylum in the UK specifically, or how to reach Britain. Instead, it focuses on France, Belgium and other EU countries, or directs asylum seekers to information on how to ‘return to their home country voluntarily’”

The site also presents incorrect information, for example, claiming that the UK “regularly returns people who enter via irregular routes.” In truth, the UK has not been able to deport asylum seekers to EU countries since 1 January because of Brexit. It also claims that steering a dinghy across the English Channel is a crime, which it is not.

In addition to the ethical issues raised, we view the web site as an unfortunate example of how government policies against migration, as well as digital rights, are rapidly converging. Let’s explore the issues raised by this site.

Is government abusing anonymity as disinformation?

According to media reports, “On the Move” has been running since April 2020. The Home Office registered its domain privately, using a registration tool which means that the Home Office is not associated with the web site, thus concealing its origins within a government department – a practice known as astroturfing.

Open Rights Group is strongly in favour of preserving the right to online anonymity. It is a form of privacy which can be an important tool to protect human rights. In the context of legal migration, anonymity is critical to protecting refugees, as well as other vulnerable and marginalised groups.

It is difficult, however, to view the Home Office as the vulnerable and marginalised group which needs protection in the asylum context.

What’s more, it is also difficult to reconcile government’s calls for platforms to crack down on the dissemination of state-backed disinformation, when that same government is not only engaging in the very practice, but also paying platforms to enable it.

Disinformation about migration is a tactic which has been employed by populist governments seeking to fuel anti-immigrant sentiment and reduce immigration. Just last year, for example, a media campaign launched in Hungary was criticised by the European Commission as “fake news and disinformation.”

By joining the club of nations which engage in the same practice, the UK loses credibility in the international arena as a good faith actor on state disinformation.

Was this site a data collection honeypot?

The involvement of the data protection regulator suggests that the site was collecting personal data about migrants in a dishonest and likely illegal manner. Outwardly, the site in invites asylum seekers to email On The Move with questions, without disclosing that they are actually handing their information and contact details to the UK government. On the back end, the use of analytics and other trackers could have been used to create identifiers about site visitors linked to other information about them, including the location of their mobile phones.

These risks suggest that the site was not merely a passive provider of information, but an active honeypot designed to capture data about potential asylum seekers.

The ICO has reiterated to the Home Office that organisations must be “clear, open and honest with people from the start about who they are, and how and why they use their personal data”. They have many routes of investigation to choose from. For example, contrary to data protection law, there is no lawful basis for the deceptive data collection on the site The use of a deceptive email address is easily a violation of the transparency prinicple. And the deceptive marketing, as well as the failure to inform visitors of the truth about the site, also constitute examples of unfair processing.

Until recently, the UK’s immigration exemption could have been used by the Home Office to justify all of these practices.

What problem does this solve?

Once again, Government is focusing on the wrong problem, in the wrong way, with the wrong solutions. If it really wants to deter entry to the UK, it must invest in creating safe and legal routes for those already on the journey, rather than investing in astroturfing campaigns with deceptive registrations. If the UK wants to be seen as a good faith actor towards the international community, it should not engage in disinformation towards the most vulnerable. And if it wants to meet its international legal obligations to protect those seeking asylum, it should cease targeting them with fake news and data honeypots.

We hope that the ICO investigation brings to light any further uses of disinformation and data collection, by the Home Office, towards people who have committed no crime and who have no intention of doing so.

Given the current situation in Afghanistan, it is particularly concerning that the web site is still live and targeting Afghanis. This heightens the vulnerability of Afghan civilians who are fleeing the Taliban as we speak. We would hope the Home Office addresses this targeting on the site as a matter of urgency.

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