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UK government plan to ‘absorb’ biometrics regulator rebutted by Commissioner

UK government plan to ‘absorb’ biometrics regulator rebutted by Commissioner

A “once-in-this-generation opportunity” to build public trust in police use of surveillance and biometrics through reformed practices could be missed if the UK government follows through on a proposal to fold the main regulatory responsible for the area into the data protection authority, according to policy paper by Surveillance Camera and Biometrics Commissioner Fraser Sampson.

The suggestion that the Surveillance Camera and Biometrics Commissioners’ roles could be folded into the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) was contained in a consultation on “a new direction” for data protection in Britain opened by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS).

Sampson noted the lack of transparency in the way the proposal was presented at the end of the consultation document, without a previous mention, in an interview with Biometric Update. Both Sampson and former Surveillance Camera Commissioner Tony Porter expressed serious misgivings about the proposal.

Sampson is now a quarter of the way through his four-year term in the dual role, and sees a rare opportunity to reform police surveillance and biometrics use.

‘Data: a wrong direction’

In the policy paper, Sampson describes the process leading up the proposal, much of which occurred before he took the role. He asks if the government’s decision and his predecessors’ concerns have been made clear in the consultation document, noting that in other areas the government’s intention is clear, or multiple options are suggested.

“Having now seen the extent of the proposed revisions to the Surveillance Camera Code of Practice and the questions in this current consultation I can understand why some stakeholders may believe this to have been a mere formality,” Sampson writes.

He also notes that the 2015 the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology recommended expanding the Biometrics Commissioner’s powers. Sampson objects to the questions posed about the regulation of biometrics and surveillance, which address only simplifying the oversight framework and absorbing the statutory functions into the ICO, suggesting that among other problems they ignore a more plausible avenue of role change involving the Investigatory Powers Commissioner.

Sampson reviews the various activities mandated for the two Commissioner’s roles, and the importance of independence to their execution, and outlines the set of non-data protection issues he is currently tasked with. He also points out that the proposal does not fit neatly into the devolved government functions in the UK’s different nations, quoting Scottish Biometrics Commissioner Dr. Brian Plastow about how the role works in Scotland.

“To propose absorption of the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner functions by the ICO is to misunderstand the realities of those functions,” Sampson concludes.

“Any such reform would require a transformational change to the oversight regime but I believe that we need as an irreducible minimum a single set of clear principles by which those operating biometric and surveillance technology will be held to account, transparently and auditably.”

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