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Home Office signs £7M deal with IBM to build controversial biometric database



UK’s Home Office has signed a £7 million (US $9.2 million) contract with IBM to work with law enforcement in developing a biometric ‘mega-database’ to “prevent crime and better safeguard the public,” despite a watchdog’s privacy concerns, NS Tech reports.

In June, IBM said it would no longer sell its biometric facial recognition and analysis software to law enforcement. IBM will supply the National Law Enforcement Data Service (LEDS) with an interface and platform to access law enforcement databases and search for matches with the Police National Database’s biometric algorithm. NS Tech suggests it could eventually be combined with Automatic Facial Recognition (AFR) technologies.

An extension of an existing contract, the decision was made without a competitive tender, while the award notice does not discuss the contract in detail, the publication writes.

Due to the pandemic, the Home Office has cancelled the procurement exercise which led to an increase in contracts signed without competitive tender. According to the Guardian, the department has spent a billion pounds (roughly US$1.3 billion) on these contracts.

Privacy International argues LEDS is a threat to civil liberties because it allows fast access to a large amount of data “such as peoples’ vehicles and property, as well as arrests, charges and court disposals, for about 12.6 million people.”

The organization points out that some data in the database may also be inaccurate since it is not accessible to the general public due to national security restrictions.  Without parliamentary scrutiny on the contract, refugees, asylum seekers, migrants and ethnic minorities would likely face more discrimination from “over-policing,” Privacy International says.

On the other hand, the Open Rights Group says the new database should “create a more accountable framework for managing police information.” The College of Policing has developed a draft Code of Practice for LEDS to help balance individual rights and law enforcement support.

Police chiefs claim funding that should have been approved for existing databases has been redirected toward LEDS.

Once complete, the system would enable access under a unitary platform to the Police National Computer, Police National Database, DVLA database and the Immigration and Asylum Biometric System. Images from the Police National Database have allegedly been used by London and Cardiff police in deployments of automated facial recognition.

LEDS is to become operational starting the end of 2020, but there is still work to be done on it. This means the project is expected to be finalized some time in 2023, at a £469 million ($616 million) cost. The Home Office has not stated how the biometric images would be used, some of which are retained illegally, Privacy International claims.

NS Tech writes the Home Office is to release a formal tender for the rest of the project.

“The Law Enforcement Data Service will be a vital tool to prevent crime and bring perpetrators to justice,” a Home Office spokesperson said in a prepared statement. “The system will have very strict controls to ensure its use will be focused on its key purpose – protecting the public. We have engaged openly and constructively with civil society organizations to ensure the use of data will be proportionate and respect privacy.”

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