The EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) – the system established to allow EU citizens to apply to remain in the UK after Brexit – has been used as an opportunity to trial the expansion of digital-by-default immigration processes in the Home Office. One part of this experiment is that those who get settled or pre-settled status only receive confirmation and proof of their status in digital form, rather than a physical document. Holders of this status can then only access and update their status information online.
Despite calls for physical proof of status to be introduced for the EUSS, the government insists that a digital-only status provides a number of benefits that justify the policy. Principally, it is claimed that digital status has the potential to be more convenient and efficient for all involved. Holders of the status should benefit from viewing and updating their information in a single place and should not have to resubmit information or prove things again in subsequent applications. For the government, managing digital status is likely to prove significantly more cost-efficient than a paper-based system.
However, there is already evidence that employers and landlords may be unwilling to undertake the necessary checks, especially if they involve unfamiliar online processes.1Passport please: the impact of the right to rent checks on migrants and ethnic minorities in England, Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, February 2017, pages 47 and 57.
The multiple-step process for sharing digital status requires individuals to have access to ID document numbers and the email address or mobile number used when applying for the scheme to receive the necessary security code. They must then provide contact details to send a share code. The onus then shifts on to employers or landlords, their willingness to go through the checks, and their digital capabilities to complete the multiple-step process. Rather than being convenient, those who must rely on third parties to undertake the digital checks may face various difficulties and potentially also discrimination.
According to the Home Office, the digital status system may be capable of providing a more secure immigration status as, compared with a paper-based status, it carries less risk of being lost, stolen or damaged. However, concerns have been raised about the security of the digital status in the EUSS, including where technical errors have made status temporarily unavailable
or where the Home Office has experienced significant data breaches.2Phil Muncaster, ‘Home Office admits 100 GDPR breaches in EU Scheme’, Infosecurity, 2 March 2020.
It is questionable whether a digital status is less vulnerable to being lost, damaged or stolen in light of the risks posed by hacking, phishing and identity theft.
The government also envisages digital status to be a step forward in tackling documents being controlled by others in cases of domestic violence, modern slavery, and human trafficking. Yet, there is a risk that control can still be exerted through digital status and early evidence3Catherine Barnard, Sarah Fraser-Butlin and Fiona Costello, ‘Unsettled status? Vulnerable EU citizens may lose their UK residence overnight’, LSE blog post, 27 November 2019.
suggests that new security and exploitation risks could emerge, such as where ‘advice sharks’ input their own contact details into the application and then make applicants pay again to access their status in the future. While status may become more secure for some, digital status may still be vulnerable to the same problems as its paper-based equivalent.
Claims from the Home Office that the transition to digital status will support vulnerable groups are also unconvincing, at least without further evidence. Digital status can offer benefits for certain vulnerable groups, such as visually impaired and dyslexic individuals, who may have difficulties reading a physical document. But it can also risk ‘digital exclusion’, where many will require ongoing assistance to access and use their status.
The extent to which both the potential benefits and the risks of introducing digital status materialise will only become visible over time. At the moment, the assumptions on which the change rests are, at the very least, deeply questionable. As the Home Office plans to expand the use of digital-by-default applications and statuses to the new post-Brexit immigration system, the experience of using digital status in the EUSS requires comprehensive and careful monitoring in the coming years.