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UK biometrics report calls police use of facial recognition questionable


UK Biometrics Commissioner Alastair R. MacGregor, QC publicly released his second annual report last quarter.

The Biometrics Commissioner is independent of the UK Government. His role is to keep under review the retention and use by the police of DNA samples, DNA profiles and fingerprints. The post was created in 2012 under the Protection of Freedoms Act.

His report for 2014-2015 was submitted to the UK Home Office and a copy was provided to the UK Parliament this month.

The report warned the Home Office that its delays in addressing police use of facial recognition technology on innocent people’s custody photographs risks inviting a legal challenge.

Although the Protections of Freedoms Act states the commissioner’s role only extends to DNA and fingerprint profiles, MacGregor has been tracking facial biometrics, accepting the view of a parliamentary committee that the currently unregulated area of police use of facial recognition technology requires urgent action.

He notes in his report that there is “no reason to believe that the situation will quickly change” with regards to regulation over police use of facial recognition technology and that he was “concerned at the absence of any substantial progress in relation to these matters.”

MacGregor expressed concern since a recent police commissioner’s report had revealed that 12 million custody photographs had been added to a national police database that utilizes automated facial recognition technology.

He argues that the photograph system is of “questionable efficiency” and notes that “although a searchable police database of facial images arguably represents a much greater threat to individual privacy than searchable databases of DNA profiles or fingerprints, this new database is subject to none of the governance controls or other protections which apply as regards the DNA and fingerprint databases by virtue of the Protections of Freedoms Act.”

The commissioner’s arguments have been echoed by some British lawmakers, who believe that the collection of photographs in a biometric database is, in fact, illegal, based on high court decisions.

The commissioner also criticizes the Home Office for not releasing a biometric strategy in a timely fashion.

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