Defense ministry access of police biometrics database among UK Commissioner’s many concerns

The UK should pass new legislation to allow police to develop new biometric capabilities, and the Ministry of Defense should establish a legal basis for its searches of police databases, or stop performing them, according to a new report from Biometrics Commissioner Paul Wiles.

The Commissioner’s annual report for 2018 primarily examines the legal footing and standards for biometrics use by UK law enforcement, including the trials of live facial recognition technology. Wiles considers the question of who should determine whether the use of biometric technologies meets the accepted standard for “proportionality,” and notes that in the absence of legislation, guidance from the National Police Chief’s Council (NPCC) is preferable to “the present somewhat chaotic situation.”

Wiles has previously supported calls for a pause on facial recognition trial by police while governance details are addressed.

The Commissioner also sets out several other concerns. The Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, which provides rules for fingerprints and DNA biometrics, does not address facial recognition, voice recognition, or gait analysis, all of which are being trialed, to varying extents, by UK police. The Police National Database (PND) includes roughly 23 million images, but only 10 million of them are suitable and of high enough quality to be searchable by facial biometric software, Wiles reports.

Perhaps most concerning is the continued practice by the UK MoD of searching for the fingerprints of people detained during military operation against the police database in the absence of “an agreed, clearly defined lawful basis,” despite being warned about the practice three years ago when it was discovered by the Chair of the Forensic Information National Databases Strategy Board (FIND-SB) three years ago. The MoD already holds the only non-police set of biometric data within the IDENT1 system, and has a legal means of accessing the police databases, but has not used it.

“(T)he MoD have not being searching via the routes permitted by the aforementioned powers but instead the searching is being carried out by the Defence Scientific and Technology Laboratories (Dstl) which is the research and technology arm of the MoD and not a law enforcement agency,” Wiles explains in the report. Since Wiles wrote to the MoD seeking clarification, and has received a series of unconvincing claims.

The need to have clear rules to maintain public trust is repeatedly made, in regards to the MoD access of the police database, as well as police facial recognition trials. “The sober point is that unless there are clear and publicly accepted rules governing the police use of new biometrics then damage could be done to public trust in policing and at a time when regard for some other public institutions is declining,” Wiles points out.

In its response to the report, the Home Office acknowledges the need to improve some processes related to DNA sample retention, and that judicial reviews could soon clarify conditions for appropriate use of automatic facial recognition. It also notes the lack of awareness among both the public and law enforcement about the retention rules for facial recognition images, and says that new governance is in development through the Home Office Biometrics Programme. The letter to Wiles by Susan Williams argues that access of the police database by MoD is in the public interest, but agrees with the need to clarify the legal basis and applicable governance for the practice.

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