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UK data watchdog to investigate country’s troubled immigration IT systems

UK data watchdog to investigate country’s troubled immigration IT systems
 

After reports revealed that more than 76,000 people have been affected by biographical and biometrical data errors in the UK government immigration database, the country’s data protection watchdog has launched an investigation into the work of the Home Office.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) will probe “IT incidents” connected to the Home Office-operated Person Centric Data Platform (PCDP) and Atlas, the computer tools used by immigration caseworkers and border authorities, according to trade publication Public Technology. Both systems are part of a wider £500 million project to revamp the country’s immigration IT system called Immigration Platform Technologies (IPT).

The move comes after a report from The Guardian revealed that “merged identities” of two or more people and listings of incorrect names, photographs or immigration status left some immigrants unable to prove their right to work, rent housing and access state-funded medical treatment.

“People’s trust in a system relies on them being sure their information is being kept securely and accurately,” an ICO spokesperson says. “The ICO is investigating this issue, following a report to us by the Home Office.”

UK’s troubled immigration system revamp

Aside from identity mix-ups, the UK’s efforts to overhaul its immigration IT systems – including biometric databases – have been met with delays and budget increases.

According to internal documents obtained by The Guardian, at the heart of the recent immigration IT system failures that have made life difficult for many UK immigrants is the Person Centric Data Platform (PCDP). The storage database keeps records of 177 million immigrants for Migration and Borders, including historic data from legacy systems and all new data from migration and borders applications. In 2023, the UK government signed a £23.1 million, four-year contract to provide software support for PCDP with Cognizant Technology Solutions UK Limited.

The faulty database, however, has had a long-standing problem, displaying identity information taken from different people, which has led to issues for immigrants during border crossings, obtaining work and housing.

The Home Office claims that only about 0.02 percent of people in the database have been impacted.

The Atlas caseworking system, on the other hand, was created to operate the error-ridden database. Designed to replace the 24-year-old Case Information Database (CID), the transition to Atlas was due to be completed in 2021 but the process is still underway, a February 2024 government report reveals.

Ministers have denied there is a “systemic” problem with Atlas. The government, however, admitted that the system has been experiencing a number of unrelated IT incidents in summer 2022. That same year, the government spent £1.5 million to employ almost 50 contractors to manually review and resolve issues caused by missing or duplicated data entries in CID and Atlas.

Governing the two systems is the Immigration Platform Technologies (IPT) program, which began in 2013 and was originally expected to be completed in 2017. The main suppliers on the project include 6 Point 6, Atos, Deloitte Digital, HP, IBM, Mastek, NETbuilder, PA Consulting and Transform, according to The Register.

In 2022, the UK Infrastructure and Projects Authority marked the IPT project in red color code noting that the project appears to be unachievable. In 2023, however, the project was upgraded to amber denoting that successful delivery appears feasible but significant issues exist.

Aside from PCDP and Atlas, the IPT project also includes Access UK, an online application service for all visa and immigration services, and the Person Identity Product (PIP), a unified provider of all person-related data.

The UK has been making other investments in its immigration IT systems, including £1.3 billion ($1.7 billion) for a biometric matching platform under the Home Office Biometrics (HBO) that aims to bring together biometric databases operated by the Home Office, UK Law Enforcement and the Criminal Justice system. One of the biometric collections included in the merger is the Immigration and Asylum Biometrics System (IABS) which serves the Immigration Platform Technologies (IPT) program.

As part of the Home Office Biometrics project, IBM won a US$84.4 million tender for the so-called Matcher Service Platform (MSP) last year. But this project too has faced delays while costs have increased, according to government assessments.

“There were challenges and delays with one of the key contracts, and with loading data into a new system. A procurement for a new supplier was underway,” the National Audit Service wrote in October 2023.

The country is also preparing to introduce the UK Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA), which could apply to 30 million travelers annually.

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