UK Biometrics Commissioner criticizes UK police for not revealing facial recognition plans

The UK Biometrics Commissioner has criticized the Home Office and police for failing to address key privacy issues relating to the use of facial recognition, according to a report by The Register.

Professor Paul Wiles condemned the police for its growing database of facial images (many of which are illegally stored), as well as the government for failing to have a formal document detailing its biometrics strategy.

He recommended that the government should hold an official public meeting outlining a public trial of facial recognition technology next week at the Notting Hill Carnival.

The backlash comes a week after reports regarding the Home Office’s plans to invest £5 million (US$6.4 million) on a facial recognition software to be initially used by law enforcement and eventually other public sector organizations.

The tender drew some controversy because of the Home Office’s plans to create a nationwide facial recognition software instead of relying on disparate and disconnected systems operated by different police forces.

Following news of the tender, Metropolitan Police revealed its plans to hold a second public trial of facial recognition at the upcoming Notting Hill Carnival, without initially assessing the effectiveness of the technology or publicizing its results.

“Tests of facial matching for spotting individuals in large crowds have so far had very poor success,” Wiles said in an official response to the police force’s use of facial recognition technology at the carnival. “It is good that they have made their trial public but they must carry out a proper evaluation and publish the results.”

Wiles also pointed out that facial images database has significantly increased to holding 20 million images, “but there is as yet no single, shared policing system for storing and searching police-held images nor an evaluation of its accuracy and usefulness.”

He said that his predecessor, as well as the Science and Technology Select Committee, have previously raised the same concerns.

He also said that the government’s biometric strategy “has been delayed for some time”, missing its first deadline in 2012 and every year since.

In addition to the Notting Hill Carnival trial, Wiles noted that “the police are conducting a number of trials to see if facial searching and matching technology can be employed effectively in crowded public places”, and that these “experiments should be properly designed and evaluated, preferably involving external experts, and the results published”.

“The use of facial images, especially in public places, is very intrusive of individual freedom, especially because images can be captured without the subject being aware,” Wiles wrote in his final comments. “The public benefit of the use of such an intrusive technology must outweigh the interference in individual privacy.”

UK police are currently allowed to decide by themselves whether to store people’s mugshots, despite the High Court’s confirmation in 2012 that many of its images were being stored illegally.

And while the judge ordered them to develop a policy for storing facial images within “months, not years”, the police ended up taking five years to create a policy and did so without any public consultation.

The policy was criticized by many privacy advocates including the National DNA Database Ethics Group because it requires individuals to take the initiative to ask police to delete any images that they might have of them.

Previously reported, the UK home secretary has ordered UK police agencies to delete on request millions of images of innocent people illegally stored on a national police database.

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