UK commissioner says police power to collect biometrics in investigations underutilized
The UK biometrics and surveillance commissioner, Fraser Sampson, is urging the government to increase its use of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act to collect and retain fingerprint scans and DNA samples gathered in investigations.
In a letter sent to Dominic Raab, secretary of state for justice, Sampson says a 2015 update to the Evidence Act, known as Section 63G, allows the police to collect biometric data while investigating certain offenses even when no when no one is prosecuted.
Domestic abuse and sex crimes are two such offenses.
Police must apply for biometric retention during a biometrics and surveillance commission proceeding. People whose data has been collected can argue for deletion at the meeting. If the commission sides with the police, the information can be held for three years.
The biometrics commissioner also favors extending the maximum retention period beyond three years.
Last year, according to Sampson, 127 police retention applications were made. In 2019, it was 117.
Those numbers contrast starkly with an average of 1,300 requests for national security purposes, and should be going up much faster, he says.
“My impression remains that those provisions are underutilized,” Sampson says in his letter to Raab.
He says holding data that otherwise would be disposed of could have one practical and two possible psychological effects for criminal justice.
It would provide ready evidence for any subsequent investigations of repeat offenders. But, he said, it might also deter crime and assure victims afraid of future criminal acts by suspects.
Sampson claims that London’s Metropolitan Police Service accounted for around half of applications.
Some prominent police forces, including West Midlands Police and Greater Manchester Police, have not used these statutory powers at all.
“The application process is not resource intensive,” he says, “is administratively straightforward and – perhaps most importantly — is clearly felt by a number of chief officers to be worth the effort in managing the relevant risks.”
Earlier this year Sampson, sociology professor Pete Fussey and others objected to upcoming plans to abolish the Retention and Use of Biometrics Commission.