UK biometrics commissioner criticizes plans for custody images database

March 20, 2017 - 

The UK’s Biometrics Commissioner has condemned the government’s response to a High Court ruling from 2012, stating that the mass retention of custody images is unlawful.

Last month the government proposed only that police forces delete on request millions of images of people who have not been convicted of any offence, illegally stored on a national police database

Professor Paul Wiles told the Home Office that the public is entitled to more “independent oversight, transparency and assurance”, while urging ministers to implement a “presumption of deletion” to expedite the process of deleting images from the database and lowering costs.

Wiles said the government’s proposal “leaves the governance and decision making of this new process entirely in the hands of the police”. Despite the promised guidance, “there still might be variation in decision making between forces resulting in a postcode lottery as to whether images are retained”.

Only 1,003 of the 896,209 people arrested in 2015 through 2016 had requested to have their police records deleted – of which only 233 applications for requests were accepted by the police.

The Home Office stated it would be an “extremely lengthy and resource intensive” process for police forces to browse through all 19 million custody images and delete those of individuals who were not convicted of an offence.

However, Wiles said the automatic deletion feature “could be built into police national database and the next generation of databases currently being developed.”

He also criticised the Home Office for arguing that the retention and use of facial images is “less intrusive (than DNA or fingerprints) as many people’s faces are on public display all the time”.

“I disagree with that assertion,” Wiles said. “In fact, for that reason, the use of facial images is more intrusive because image capture can be done using cameras in public places and searched against government databases without the subject being aware. Facial images are no longer only used solely for custody purposes and image capture and facial searching capabilities have and are being used by the police in public places.”

Despite a high court ruling in 2012 that made it illegal for agencies to retain images of innocent people, police agencies continued to build up a massive database without implementing any of the controls or privacy measures relating to police DNA and fingerprint databases.

The more than 19 million images stored on the national database can be searched using facial recognition technology.

In her response last month, Home secretary Amber Rudd said the review established “a careful balance between protecting individual privacy and giving the police the tools they need to keep us safe”.

The Home Office said that requests would result in images being deleted “unless retention is necessary for a policing purpose and there is an exceptional reason to retain it”.

However, Wiles said that “future public confidence might require a greater degree of independent oversight, transparency and assurance than is proposed.”

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About Justin Lee

Justin Lee has been a contributor with Biometric Update since 2014. Previously, he was a staff writer for web hosting magazine and website, theWHIR. For more than a decade, Justin has written for various publications on issues relating to technology, arts and culture, and entertainment. Follow him on Twitter @BiometricJustin.