UK oversight bodies probe government data set ethics and biometric strategy

The UK government’s Biometrics and Forensics Ethics Group (BFEG) has been tasked with providing independent oversight of the Home Office’s use of large and complex data sets, just as the Commons’ Science and Technology Committee announced it will hold an evidence session to consider Home Office’s “Biometrics Strategy.”

The commons committee will call Biometrics Commissioner Paul Wiles, Forensic Science Regulator Dr. Gillian Tully, and the Minister for Countering Extremism Susan Williams as it checks on progress made towards addressing the recommendations made in its 2018 report, as well as evaluating the heavily-criticized Biometrics Strategy and the Forensic Science Regulator Bill.

The Home Office Biometrics Strategy was delivered 6 years behind schedule, and was criticized at the time by Wiles for failing to propose legislation. Committee chairman Norman Lamb echoed his earlier comments that the document is not adequate, noting in particular a failure to address the loss of privacy associated with the technology.

“Successive Science and Technology Committees have repeatedly raised concerns about the governance of biometrics and forensics by the Home Office. Both are at the heart of our courts system and its vital that we have confidence in them and the administration of justice,” Lamb says.

“Almost a year ago, we published our Report on the Biometrics strategy and forensic science services. As the recent letter from the Forensic Science Regulator, Dr Gillian Tully, highlights, the Government is still no closer to putting the Regulator’s position on a statutory footing—one of our key Report recommendations.”

In one of a series of letters between the stakeholders above, Williams said in December (PDF) that the government has established a Law Enforcement Facial Images and New Biometrics Oversight Board, as part of its effort to provide better services and maintain public trust. The session will take place on March 19.

Responsibility for overseeing the application of the Data Ethics Governance Framework has been given to the BFEG in order to strengthen the public’s assurance that data will be ethically used by Home Office, according to a government announcement. The Group will consider the ethics of technologies which produce biometric and forensic identifiers, scientific services used within the justice system, research applications, and biometric or forensic data management.

“With ever increasing volumes of data and the implementation of new data protection legislation it’s more appropriate than ever to expand the BFEG remit to consider large and complex data sets,” says BFEG Chair Chris Hughes.

“The expansion will build on the committee’s existing work and will work to ensure that the use of an individual’s personal data is legitimate and proportionate, contributing to justified trust in the Home Office.”

The Home Office has previously said it cannot currently comply with a court order to delete images of innocent people from its facial recognition database, as it would be too expensive with the technology in use.

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