Clarity in police use of biometric evidence is not easy to come by
Physical evidence might sit around for decades before chance intervenes and the material can be used to advance a police investigation. Generally speaking, no harm, no foul.
That is less true if the evidence is a biometric identifier. Civil libertarians and police reform advocates see danger in law enforcement agencies holding critical personal data until they see fit to destroy it.
The longer biometric data is held, some say, the more likely that it could be mishandled, misused or abused, not to mention be stolen.
But the government and industry side of the argument has its strengths.
Canadian broadcaster CBC has reported on a tragic and grisly discovery by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in a long-unsolved murder case.
An abused body had gone unidentified since being removed from a farm septic tank in 1977. (It is difficult to discuss the case without referring to the corpse by the name it was given by police, with their unique dark humor: Septic Tank Sam.)
Othram, a genetic genealogy firm and DNA lab in Texas used DNA out of a bone from the body to learn its identity — Gordon Sanderson — according to the CBC. Police continue to search for the Indigenous man’s murderer.
That has to be squared with the dangers of warehousing biometrics, skeptics say. Is naming a murder victim as important as someone being wrongly imprisoned? Or as cumulatively painful as a breach putting hundreds of thousands of unalterable identifiers up for sale on the dark web?
According to the CBC, the RCMP is examining how it uses DNA banks.
An RMCP spokesperson told the broadcaster that officials are teasing this question with the nation’s privacy commissioner and justice department as well as the law enforcement agency’s forensic lab and the National DNA Databank Advisory Committee.
A similar self-examination is happening in the United Kingdom.
The UK’s commissioner for the Retention and Use of Biometric Material is required to report about the office’s functioning annually. This year’s report (the office’s seventh) held no revelations.
It did suggest an easy way to cut down on collected DNA evidence becoming compromised, however; consistently sealing the evidence bag properly. Of 2,588 errors in DNA biometrics sampling by UK police in 2020, 773, or 30 percent, were caused by failures to seal the bag.
The office summarized its cooperation with police agencies on using and retaining biometric materials (“generally good”). And like last year, the office recommended putting more meat to governance, focus on leadership and commitment to public reassurance when it comes to police using biometric materials.
But days before the report was published, Fraser Sampson, the office’s commissioner, found himself in a battle to keep the monitoring of biometrics use in his grasp. The national government has been moving to give the Information Commissioner’s Office that responsibility.
Sampson has said officials pushing the change misunderstand the qualitative difference between biometric data and the more generalized communications data that the ICO manages.
It also would create conflicts of interest that would be unduly hard on citizens asking for redress of data wrongs, he said.