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UK government’s position on facial biometrics database hit with liberal backlash

The UK government’s decision to allow police to store the facial biometric images of millions of innocent people on a massive database has drawn a number criticisms from UK civil liberties’ groups and the Liberal Democrats, according to a report by UK Authority.

Independent biometrics commissioner Paul Wiles condemned the practice last week, stating that UK citizens are entitled to greater “independent oversight, transparency and assurance”.

Wiles called on ministers to implement a ‘presumption of deletion’, which would make it mandatory for police to provide proof as to why the ‘custody images’ need to be stored.

The Home Office objected to this recommendation, stating that it would be an “extremely lengthy and resource intensive” process for police forces to browse through all 19 million images on the database.

Home Secretary Amber Rudd said her proposals forged “a careful balance between protecting individual privacy and giving the police the tools they need to keep us safe”.

The department proposed that police forces are only obligated to consider requests to delete images from those individuals who have not been convicted of any offence.

The idea led to the government’s response to a High Court ruling in 2012 that the mass retention of custody images is illegal.

However, police forces have continued to build up a huge database over the last five years without implementing any security measures that apply to DNA and fingerprint data.

Wiles said the government’s proposal “leaves the governance and decision making of this new process entirely in the hands of the police”.

Civil liberties groups share Wiles’ concerns about the government’s decision to give UK police the power to decide which facial biometric images are deleted.

“The biometrics commissioner is right to feel let down. Innocent people’s photographs are held on a searchable database,” Bella Sankey, policy director at Liberty, said. “Responsibility shouldn’t fall to the public to apply for their images to be deleted – the police should automatically clear out their own systems.”

Jim Killock, executive director of Open Rights Group, also expressed her discontent with the biometrics database.

“It’s essential that pictures are automatically removed unless police give a reason to retain them. We are meant to be presumed innocent,” Killock said. “ The commissioner outlines exactly how intrusive this national database is becoming as facial recognition is applied to it. He is also damning about the lack of safeguards surrounding its use.”

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