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UK Surveillance Camera and Biometrics Commissioner pans proposed role changes

UK Surveillance Camera and Biometrics Commissioner pans proposed role changes

That the right to life and freedom from degrading treatment are related to police uses of biometrics, but not protected through data privacy regulation should be obvious and uncontroversial. The UK Surveillance Camera and Biometrics Commissioner, however, has felt compelled to make this point in a blog post reacting to the suggestion, hidden away at the end of a lengthy government consultation, that the two Commissioners’ roles could be folded into the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

Fraser Sampson expressed grave misgivings about the idea of reducing all biometrics oversight and surveillance camera regulation to data protection issues in an interview with Biometric Update last week.

Sampson notes that current biometrics issues the UK is facing include “an act of Parliament telling the police what they must do if they want to take a suspect’s boot print but which is silent on the mass capture of facial images, leaving the police frustrated and the public nonplussed,” unintended consequences of shifting towards ‘voluntary attendance’ at police stations as a substitute for arrest, and “the pressing need for reform in the taking and matching of samples by the police.”

A police biometrics manager told Sampson that the state of affairs “is ‘doing a disservice to our victims and our officers.’”

The public consultation provides a needed chance for public debate, according to the blog post, but the consultation does not address the issues the Commissioner identifies.

He reviews many of the same arguments he made in discussion with Biometric Update, including that the Office of the Biometrics Commissioner is not technically a regulator, but rather makes quasi-judicial rulings about police biometrics deployments and data retention. In Scotland, these are handled by a judge, but the in England and Wales, the Commissioner makes the judgement and then reports to Parliament, adding a layer of transparency to the process.

Perhaps most puzzling about the proposal is its contrast to the government’s own conclusions from an investigation by the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology, which recommended after hearing from the Biometrics Commissioner and the ICO in 2015 that the statutory responsibilities of the Biometrics Commissioner be extended. Scotland extended the role of its own Biometrics Commissioner in the way advised by the committee, but it is not mentioned in the new consultation.

“This consultation ought to have provided a rare opportunity to pause and consider the real issues that we talk about when we talk about accountable police use of biometrics and surveillance, a chance to design a legal framework that is a planned response to identified requirements rather than a retrospective reaction to highlighted shortcomings, but it is an opportunity missed,” Sampson writes.

The ICO recently issued its own response to the proposal, but declined to explicitly defend or oppose the dramatic biometrics oversight change suggested.

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