UK Commons committee prepares for inquiry into Home Office’ biometrics guidance

January 22, 2018 - 

A UK House of Commons committee is preparing to launch an inquiry into the storage of 20 million mugshots by police after running out of patience with the Government, which was told the practice was unlawful without legal and regulatory backing six years ago by the High Court, the Independent reports.

The database containing facial images of roughly one-third of all people in the UK, including many without criminal records, was defended by the Home Office, which directed police to continue maintaining it while the Government worked on a legal framework to support it. The UK’s biometrics strategy has been delayed for five years, however, prompting criticism from Biometrics Commissioner, Professor Paul Wiles, and others.

The High Court ruled in 2012 that the retention of facial images by police for six years is inappropriate. Despite that, while announcing a review into image retention, the Home Office reaffirmed its position last year that police should retain images for six years, or ten in the case of serious alleged offences, unless an individual applies to the police to have their image deleted. In that case, the Home Office said, there would be a “presumption that this will be deleted unless retention is necessary,” as previously reported, but Wiles pointed out that just over 1,000 of nearly 900,000 arrested in 2015 and 2016 have applied to have images deleted, and only 233 were successful.

The Commons science and technology committee will seek information from the Home Office minister for biometrics, Baroness Williams. If it is not satisfied with the answers provided, it will launch a full inquiry, committee chairman Norman Lamb told the Independent, calling the situation “intolerable.”

“There are no real rules surrounding this. The police can store these facial images without any proper consideration of them, which raises fundamental and significant civil liberty issues about what they are retaining about us,” Lamb said, noting that images are included of people who have not been charged with a crime, and of people who have been exonerated.

Lamb also noted concerns with the use of facial recognition systems by the police about bias and the accuracy of identification.

“This is not to say the technology doesn’t have it place, or potential value, but it needs to be operated within a clear legal and regulatory framework,” he said.

He also said that the review failed to address image capture and use, and that a letter sent in late 2017 failed to satisfactorily answer the committee’s concerns. Williams has said that the biometrics strategy will be published in 2018.

The Home Office announced earlier this month that it plans to consolidate separate biometric databases for law enforcement and immigration, as the proliferation of surveillance cameras operating without legal or regulatory guidance was criticized by the UK Surveillance Camera Commissioner.

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About Chris Burt

Chris Burt is a writer and contributor to Biometric Update. He has also written nonfiction about information technology, dramatic arts, sports culture, and fantasy basketball, as well as fiction about a doomed astronaut. He lives in Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter @AFakeChrisBurt."