Biometrics Commissioner supports emergency extension of UK police fingerprint and DNA data retention powers
The UK Biometrics Commissioner has responded to a formal request by Counter-Terrorism Policing to extend emergency powers granted for the coronavirus emergency by six months.
Section 24 of the Coronavirus Act 2020 allows new regulations for counter-terrorism police to retain fingerprints and DNA profiles for six months in the absence of another statutory basis for their storage. Biometrics Commissioner Paul Wiles also commented on Section 24 when the Act was passed, supporting it as both necessary and proportionate, and suggesting it may be appropriate to extend it by up to 12 months. The reason is that police resources were too stretched by the pandemic to meet the statutory retention periods of the pre-existing regulations without deleting biometric data important to UK national security.
The regulations under section 24 extend the retention periods associated with National Security Determinations (NSDs). Because the Biometrics Commissioner oversees NSDs, removing the requirement for new NSDs bypasses that oversight step.
Under section 24, 1,263 6-month extensions of biometric data retention periods were granted between April 2 and September 3 of 2020. There were also 96 new NSDs considered and granted by Chief Officers, and no biometric records lost.
“The effect of section 24, therefore, was to retain biometric information that may be of national security value but at the cost of keeping some biometrics which may prove to be neither necessary nor proportionate to retain,” according to Wiles.
The question of whether the circumstances remain the same is one for Parliament, Wiles writes, but uncertainty surrounding vaccine readiness and the very real possibility of a second wave of infections means that police are in effectively the same position as they were when the Coronavirus Act was passed in terms of capacity. The number of normally-processed NSDs also indicates that police have attempted to by judicious with the emergency extension powers, and police are planning to train more officers to prepare NSDs to allow for more normal, formal reviews.
For these reasons, the office is supporting the extension of the measures.
However, Home Office’s intention to have only one Commissioner jointly fill the roles of watchdog for both biometrics and public security camera use “means that this case load will sorely test my successor,” Wiles writes. Wiles term as Biometrics Commissioner ends in December, and plans to discuss the mitigation of risk created by such a workload with the UK’s Counter-Terrorism Command.