UK commissioners urge pause on police use of automatic facial biometrics after pilots

The UK parliament’s Science and Technology Committee has been told that live facial recognition technology should not be further deployed by UK police in the existing circumstances, and that the retention of millions of images for biometric matching may not withstand a future court challenge, Computer Weekly reports.

A priority investigation into the legal basis, necessity, proportionality, and justification for the use of automatic facial recognition has been opened by the Information Commissioner’s office, deputy commissioner Steve Wood told the committee in a written submission. The committee declared that the technology should not be deployed beyond the previously planned pilots in May of last year in a report that was highly critical of the Home Office’s approach to retaining images and formulating policy. Wood says the issues identified do not appear to have been fully addressed, and that it was not clear how they would be.

Metropolitan Police carried out its tenth deployment, the last scheduled pilot, on February 14.

Biometric Commissioner Paul Wiles agreed with the information commissioner that several issues need to be addressed before beginning operational deployments, and told the committee that the trials must provide clarity.

“Biometric, by definition, is going to be extremely intrusive of individual privacy, and therefore liberty,” Wiles said. He noted that in addition to a lack of ministerial oversight, there has been little ministerial leadership or public debate about how to proceed with the technology, given its potential for mass surveillance.

Wiles also said it could be three years before the Police National Database (PND) is linked with the Police National Computer (PNC), which could enable law enforcement to cull the images of people not convicted of a crime, and thereby put the retention of images for facial recognition on more sound legal footing. In visits to more than half of police forces in England and Wales, Wiles’ team noted a poor understanding of the retention rules, and little evidence they are being followed. Police are required to delete images of those not convicted of a crime on request.

“I’m not sure that the legal case [for retention] is strong enough, and I’m not sure that it would withstand a further court challenge,” Wiles told the committee.

Forensics Science Regulator Dr. Gillian Tully told the committee that while a bill proposing to grant her statutory powers she has requested has been objected to, other bills that have faced objections have advanced and been made law, indicating that it is not a high priority for the government. Tully also said that while the number of police forces with some of the accreditation they need for digital forensics has improved from roughly half to around 70 or 80 percent, but that a focus on achieving accreditation for fingerprint forensics has slowed the process, and few if any forces will have all of the accreditation they need for digital forensics by the 2020 goal. Having statutory powers would enable Tully to prohibit unaccredited police forces from using digital forensic technology.

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