Proposal - Fixing the digital status
A proposal for a safe and simple proof of rights for EU citizens living in the UK
Download the full 22-page proposal (pdf) here
This is how the UK’s digital status work for millions of EU citizens since 1st July 2021
This is how it could work for them – a simple, safe physical document, respecting data privacy rights
HOW IT MIGHT LOOK ?
With the UK’s exit from the European Union, EU free movement has ended. Millions of EU citizens have been granted a new digital-only immigration status, whereas the EU has mandated all member states to issue British citizens a uniform physical residence document.
Many EU citizens are struggling with this untried digital- only status. It is inaccessible for those with low digital literacy or certain disabilities, and it is reliant on Home Office systems. You need a smartphone or computer, access to the relevant email or SMS account, a reliable internet connection through Wi-Fi or 4G signal, and finally, you depend on the Home Office service and databases being up and running. A successful status check has many moving parts – if any one of these fails the whole check fails.
In the autumn of 2020, a House of Lords Immigration Bill amendment (1) called for “physical proof confirming pre-settled status or settled status to all EEA and Swiss nationals and their families who have been granted such status under the EU Settlement Scheme and who request such proof.”
The Government’s response included “If it is to serve as proof of status to third parties such as employers and landlords, and as we need to reduce the risk of document fraud, this would mean issuing biometrics cards, which would incur a significant and unfunded cost, not a small, insignificant cost.”
It is understandable that the Government’s concerns focus on security and cost.
However, there are solutions which would address both the Home Office’s concerns on security and cost, and EU citizens’ concerns over their data rights, privacy, accessibility and desire to have a permanent proof of status under their control.
The time to discuss this safe and cost-effective alternative is now - as the Home Office has made clear that this new digital status will be optional to applicants to the new Hong Kong British National (Overseas) visa scheme, and that in time, biometrics cards will be phased out for all migrants.
(1) Immigration Bill debate 5 Oct 2020, column 474
HOW WOULD IT WORK?
The existing EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) could continue working exactly as it does at the moment, both in the way people apply to the system, are granted status, and their status is recorded in the Home Office’s databases.
However, alongside this, the Home Office would implement a “Secure QR Code” system. This can be developed in a very short period of time, within a minimal budget, as this is well-established technology.
When a citizen is granted their status, they would be issued with a document showing the details of their immigration status. The document would also contain a secure QR code, which provides a means to verify that the document is authentic. This is conceptually similar to receiving a boarding pass for an aeroplane flight, with the difference that this code would be valid for many years, rather than a single event(2).
Citizens who have already been granted status before this system is implemented would simply request the Home Office to send them a document with a Secure QR Code.
The QR code would contain within it the encrypted details of the citizen’s immigration status, even including their photograph. The code is impossible to tamper with and cannot have been produced by anyone other than the Home Office, since it would be digitally signed by a Home Office private key using well established Public Key Infrastructure (as also used in biometric passports).
There should be different ways of issuing the document to the citizen – whether electronically or
through the post. Citizens should be able to request the documents via a website or a dedicated telephone number.
Citizens who receive it electronically could print their document, or have a friend or helping organisation print it for them. An option to issue the QR codes as stickers to be glued into passports could be explored. There are many possibilities to help prevent a digital divide.
On the other hand, for someone who loves everything digital, they can simply rely on the document on their phone, and carry it with them that way. The point is that it is entirely their choice, and under their control.
When a prospective employer or landlord wants to check someone’s rights, they would be able to look at the document, and verify its authenticity by scanning the QR code. They could either do this by downloading an app from the Home Office website and using that for all their checks going forward. Or the Home Office might provide a facility to scan the QR code from its website (see Appendix A in the full proposal - download it here).
Either way the service provider could trust the app or the website because website addresses that end in .gov.uk are strictly controlled. (The current digital status system relies on the same gov.uk fact for trust). The citizen’s date of birth could be input as an extra security step to unlock the QR code.
The citizen could show the service provider their QR code in any number of ways – if they were meeting face-to-face the citizen could hand over the paper document, or show the code from their phone. They could display the code in an online meeting. Or they could send the document to the provider electronically or by post. In other words, this would work exactly as if the user needed to show proof of a British passport or physical residence card but safer, since the employer or landlord could be sure that the code is authentic.
And that’s all there is to it!
The proposed system can deal with revoked or updated immigration status (see details later in the document). It would still be digital, with all the advantages that come with modern technology. But crucially it would not discriminate against those who struggle with technology, do not have access to smartphones, or are cut off from the internet.
(2) Similar to expiry of biometric residence cards/permits and passports, and to the card given to British citizens living in the EU covered by the Withdrawal Agreement – para 9 of https://ec.europa.eu/home-affairs/sites/homeaffairs/files/what-we-do/policies/borders-and-visas/ document-security/docs/c2020_1114_commission-implementing-decision.pdf
The following tables show a comparison of features for three immigration status implementations:
Biometric card – the existing biometric residence cards or permits that have been issued to non-EU citizens. The Home Office has stated(3) that it intends to also move non-EU citizens to digital status over time, although they do indicate that those citizens may still be able to have physical cards.
EU Settlement Scheme Digital – the existing implementation of digital EU Settlement Scheme digital status (commonly known as settled status). It involves the citizen visiting a website and using identity document details and two-factor authentication to generate a share code which is passed to the checking agent who needs to input the share code and date of birth into another website.
Physical Digital – the Secure QR Code scheme discussed in this briefing paper as an alternative proposal to EUSS Digital. It involves the citizen being issued with a document which they can simply show (either in paper form or electronically) to the checking agent. The agent then verifies the authenticity of the document by using a scanning app (also inputting the citizen’s date of birth) to decrypt the Secure QR Code.
(4) Many citizens with biometric residence cards also have a digital UK immigration status
(6) By citizen re-printing saved email or saved document, or by contacting the Home Office for a new document
(7) Requires e.g. magnifiers, ultraviolet light sources, and detailed knowledge of security features – see https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/recognising-fraudulent-identity-documents
(8) Simple Home Office app will verify using PKI (Public Key Infrastructure)
(9) The checking agent only needs the internet to download the Home Office app for the first time, and from time to time to refresh the app.
They do not need the internet to perform individual status checks.
(10) E.g. watermarks, holograms, random fibres, background print, special inks (11) Public Key encryption – far more secure
(12) See question 3.1 in the Q&A in the full 22-page proposal below
(13) See question 2.5 further in the full 22-page proposal below