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UK Biometrics and Forensics Ethics group finally reports concerns with government plans


The UK government has released the first annual report from the Biometrics and Forensic Ethics Group (BFEG) two years later than it was initially planned, according to The Register.

The BFEG was asked to provide feedback on the Forensic Information Databases Service Strategy Board, previously known as the National DNA Database Strategy Board, as well as the Home Office Biometrics (HOB) program, the Review of Custody Images, and the Retention of custody images, DNA profiles and fingerprints from convicted persons until they are 100 years old, the National Law Enforcement Data Programme (NLEDP), and Prüm, a European Union (EU) Directive that authorized the exchange of DNA, fingerprints and vehicle registration data between member states.

The group identified several potential problems with the HOB, such as the risk and complexity of transferring data between systems, how combining datasets would increase access to information beyond the intended scope, the sensitivity of metadata, and the risk that checks will be skipped to meet tight deadlines. The report also recommends that the aggregation of data, and potential interaction between the HOB program, NLEDP, Emergency Services Network and Automatic Number Plate Recognition system be studied further.

UK’s Home Office has budgeted £842 million (US$1 billion) for the Biometrics program which addresses DNA, fingerprint identification, and facial recognition associated with millions of people. It has attracted a lot of criticism for not clearly explaining the procedure, the outcome, and whether certain information will be deleted from the database. At the time, the institution was accused by Gizmodo that it was “granting itself the right to end anonymity,” following an expansion proposal.

Last month, it was announced that Mastek would develop applications and provide support for the biometrics program, while WorldReach signed a multi-million-pound contract with the Home Office for biometric digital onboarding. The Home Office chose Leidos to run a project valued at some £300 million (roughly $388 million) which entails modernizing the country’s national biometrics systems used by law enforcement, immigration services, and border security.

The report provides guidelines such as organizing a public meeting to hear the people’s opinions regarding how custody images are kept and used, as well as their opinions on creating a national Y-STR database that would be used by the police to predict characteristics, and informing the public about law enforcement’s plans to run facial recognition trials without generating watch lists or secretly collecting data.

The Register reached out to the BFEG to understand why the 2017 report was published at the end of 2019.

According to Chair Mark Watson-Grandy: “The report covers a period of transition for the group during which it expanded from the National DNA Database Ethics Group to the Biometrics and Forensic Ethics Group. The change was associated with an increased remit from the consideration of ethical issues in the use of DNA to the ethical impact of the capture, retention and use of all biometric identifiers including, but not limited to; DNA; facial recognition; fingerprints; and footwear.”

He further added that “(t)ransition of the group and turnover of staff has delayed the publication of this report. The second annual report from the Biometrics and Forensic Ethics Group will be published once parliament returns and will provide an update on the recommendations given in the 2017 report.”

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