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Brits support police use of biometrics technology but only if its regulated: survey

Brits support police use of biometrics technology but only if its regulated: survey

British citizens support police use of biometric identification and verification systems – but they remain skeptical about private organizations’ use of biometric data, new research from the Alan Turing Institute has shown.

The survey sheds light on public attitudes toward the use of biometric technology by UK law enforcement agencies just as the country’s government is preparing a major US$295 million investment into policing technology that will include facial recognition systems.

Conducted by the Institute’s Centre for Emerging Technology and Security (CETaS), the research also revealed that despite regular warnings from digital rights groups against police use of technologies such as facial recognition, more than half of the respondents (53 percent) believe that benefits of biometrics outweigh the concerns. But there is a caveat: All biometric applications should be either explicitly regulated or banned, the majority of survey takers say.

These attitudes seem more in line with how the European Union has decided to regulate biometrics through the AI Act and less with the UK’s choice to regulate biometrics through broad data protection principles.

According to the survey, a large majority of respondents, 85 percent, feel comfortable with the use of biometrics to verify identities at the UK border. Around 60 percent also say they support using biometric technology, such as live facial recognition, to catch criminal suspects in crowded areas.

One exception in the support for police use of the technology is polygraphs and emotion recognition: Only around one-third (29 percent) of respondents are comfortable with using biometric data to determine whether someone is telling the truth.

Public sector organizations, such as police forces and the publicly-funded National Health Service recorded higher levels of trust among survey takers, 79 and 66 percent respectively. In comparison, commercial entities scored lower on the trust level, including employers (42 percent) and retailers (38 percent).

The majority of respondents (57 percent) also said they were uncomfortable with biometric sharing schemes between police and the private sector. These attitudes may put a damper on initiatives such as Project Pegasus, a US$752,000 scheme kickstarted by UK’s supermarkets and retailers to match CCTV images of shoplifters with those in a national police database.

The survey was conducted over a sample of 662 respondents. The authors of the research note that a large-scale representative survey of UK minorities should be conducted to understand their specific attitudes.

Another part of CETaS involved researching and interviewing experts to formulate recommendations on regulating biometric data. The research concludes that the UK’s legal framework for biometrics is “inadequate and in need of reform.”

Regulatory questions abound for police use of biometrics technology

At the beginning of March, the UK laid out its plan to boost policing work with technology such as drones and facial recognition. But the government will still need to tackle a host of unresolved legal and regulatory questions – including those related to biometric data.

Among the issues that regulators will need to discuss are cloud services that can send sensitive law enforcement data overseas, including biometrics. At the beginning of the year, the UK Information Commissioner Office (ICO) said that this would be made possible thanks to an information-sharing agreement with the U.S. government known as the U.S. Cloud Act. Experts, however, have raised questions about the deal and the data regulator is yet to confirm that the arrangement is legal.

In January, the Justice and Home Affairs Committee of the UK House of Lords questioned the legality of live facial recognition use by the police, noting the lack of a clear legal basis. The government has previously rejected the majority of the committee’s findings related to the issue.

Lawmakers, civil society members and other UK regulatory bodies have also repeatedly called for new regulation on law enforcement’s use of biometrics, Computer Weekly reports in an article outlining major regulatory roadblocks for the technology.

The government’s US$295 million funding plan, however, is still underway with Chancellor Jeremy Hunt promising in its Spring Budget speech more investment into live facial recognition, AI and automation tools such as face-blurring software for documents that require redaction.

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